2004  

January 2004

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. London: Profile Books, 2003. ISBN 1-86197-612-7.
A U.S edition is now available.

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O'Brien, Flann [Brian O'Nolan]. The Third Policeman. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, [1967] 1999. ISBN 1-56478-214-X.
This novel, one of the most frequently recommended books by visitors to this page, was completed in 1940 but not published until 1967, a year after the author's death. Perhaps the world was insufficiently weird before the High Sixties! This is one strange book; in some ways it anticipates surreal new wave science fiction such as John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar and The Jagged Orbit, but O'Brien is doing something quite different here which I'll refrain from giving away. Don't read the (excellent) Introduction before you read the novel—there is one big, ugly spoiler therein.

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Wellum, Geoffrey. First Light. London: Penguin Books, 2002. ISBN 0-141-00814-8.
A U.S edition is available, but as of this date only in hardcover.

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Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. ISBN 0-374-52221-9.

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Bolton, Andrew. Bravehearts: Men in Skirts. London: V&A Publications, 2003. ISBN 0-8109-6558-5.

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Thernstrom, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-0446-8.

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Drosnin, Michael. The Bible Code 2. New York: Penguin Books, [2002] 2003. ISBN 0-14-200350-6.
What can you say about a book, published by Viking and Penguin as non-fiction, which claims the Hebrew Bible contains coded references to events in the present and future, put there by space aliens whose spacecraft remains buried under a peninsula on the Jordan side of the Dead Sea? Well, actually a number of adjectives come to mind, most of them rather pithy. The astonishing and somewhat disturbing thing, if the author is to believed, is that he has managed to pitch this theory and the apocalyptic near-term prophecies he derives from it to major players on the world stage including Shimon Peres, Yasir Arafat, Clinton's chief of staff John Podesta in a White House meeting in 2000, and in a 2003 briefing at the Pentagon, to the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and other senior figures at the invitation of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. If this is the kind of input that's informing decisions about the Middle East, it's difficult to be optimistic about the future. When predicting an “atomic holocaust” for 2006 in The Bible Code 2, Drosnin neglects to mention that in chapter 6 of his original 1997 The Bible Code, he predicted it for either 2000 or 2006, but I suppose that's standard operating procedure in the prophecy biz.

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Guéhenno, Jean-Marie. La fin de la démocratie. Paris: Flammarion, 1993. ISBN 2-08-081322-6.
This book, written over a decade ago, provides a unique take on what is now called “globalisation” and the evolution of transnational institutions. It has been remarkably prophetic in the years since its publication and a useful model for thinking about such issues today. Guéhenno argues that the concept of the nation-state emerged in Europe and North America due to their common history. The inviolability of borders, parliamentary democracy as a guarantor of liberty, and the concept of shared goals for the people of a nation are all linked to this peculiar history and consequently non-portable to regions with different histories and cultural heritages. He interprets most of disastrous post-colonial history of the third world as a mistaken attempt to implant the European nation-state model where the precursors and prerequisites for it do not exist. The process of globalisation and the consequent transformation of hierarchical power structures, both political and economic, into self-organising and dynamic networks is seen as rendering the nation-state obsolete even in the West, bringing to a close a form of organisation dating from the Enlightenment, replacing democratic rule with a system of administrative rules and regulations similar to the laws of the Roman Empire. While offering hope of eliminating the causes of the large-scale conflicts which characterised the 20th century, this scenario has distinct downsides: an increased homogenisation of global cultures and people into conformist “interchangeable parts”, a growing sense that while the system works, it lacks a purpose, erosion of social solidarity in favour of insecurity at all levels, pervasive corruption of public officials, and the emergence of diffuse violence which, while less extreme than 20th century wars, is also far more common and difficult to deter. That's a pretty good description of the last decade as I saw it, and an excellent list of things to ponder in the years to come. An English translation, The End of the Nation-State, is now available; I've not read it.

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Robinson, Kim Stanley. Blue Mars. New York: Bantam Books, 1996. ISBN 0-553-57335-7.
This is the third volume in Robinson's Mars Trilogy: the first two volumes are Red Mars and Green Mars (April 2001). The three volumes in the trilogy tell one continuous story and should be read in order; if you start with Green or Blue, you'll be totally lost as to the identities of characters introduced in Red or events which occurred in prior volumes. When I read Red Mars in the mid 1990s, I considered it to be one of the very best science fiction novels I'd ever read, and I've read all of the works of the grand masters. Green Mars didn't quite meet this standard, but was still a superb and thought-provoking read. By contrast, I found Blue Mars a tremendous disappointment—tedious and difficult to finish. It almost seems like Robinson ran out of ideas before filling the contracted number of pages. There are hundreds of pages of essentially plot-free pastoral descriptions of landscapes on terraformed Mars; if you like that kind of stuff, you may enjoy this book, but I prefer stories in which things happen and characters develop and interact in interesting ways, and there's precious little of that here. In part, I think the novel suffers from the inherent difficulty of writing about an epoch in which human technological capability permits doing essentially anything whatsoever—it's difficult to pose challenges which characters have to surmount once they can simply tell their AIs to set the robots to work, then sit around drinking kavajava until the job is done. The politics and economics in these books has never seemed particularly plausible to me, and in Blue Mars it struck me as even more naïve, but perhaps that's just because there's so little else going on. I can't make any sense at all of the immigration and population figures Robinson gives. On page 338 (mass-market paperback edition) the population of Mars is given as 15 million and Earth's population more than 15 billion in 2129, when Mars agrees to accept “at least ten percent of its population in immigrants every year”. Since Earth pressed for far more immigration while Mars wished to restrict it, presumably this compromise rate is within the capability of the interplanetary transportation system. Now there's two ways to interpret the “ten percent”. If every year Mars accepts 10% of its current population, including immigrants from previous years, the Mars population runs away geometrically, exploding to more than two billion by 2181. But on page 479, set in that year, the population of Mars is given as just 18 million, still a thousandth of Earth's, which has grown to 18 billion. Okay, let's assume the agreement between Earth and Mars meant that Mars was only to accept 10% of its present population as of the date of the agreement, 2129. Well, if that's the case, then you have immigration of 1.5 million per year, which leaves us with a Mars population of 93 million by 2181 (see the spreadsheet I used to perform these calculations for details). And these figures assume that neither the Mars natives nor the immigrants have any children at all, which is contradicted many times in the story. In fact, to get from a population of 15 million in 2129 to only 18 million in 2181 requires a compounded growth rate of less than 0.4%, an unprecedentedly low rate for frontier civilisations without any immigration at all.

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Buckley, Reid. USA Today: The Stunning Incoherence of American Civilization. Camden, SC: P.E.N. Press, 2002. ISBN 0-972-1000-0-8.

The author, brother of William F. Buckley, is founder of a school of public speaking and author of several books on public speaking and two novels. Here, however, we have Buckley's impassioned, idiosyncratic, and (as far as I can tell) self-published rant against the iniquities of contemporary U.S. morals, politics, and culture. Bottom line: he doesn't like it—the last two sentences are “The supine and swinish American public is the reason why our society has become so vile. We are vile.” This book would have been well served had the author enlisted brother Bill or his editor to red-pencil the manuscript. How the humble apostrophe causes self-published authors to stumble! On page 342 we trip over the “biography of John Quincy Adam's” among numerous other exemplars of proletarian mispunctuation. On page 395, Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box has his name given as “Rehe” (and in the index too). On page 143, he misquotes Alan Guth's Inflationary Universe as saying the grand unification energy is “1016 GeV”, thereby getting it wrong by thirteen orders of magnitude compared to the 1016 GeV a sharp-eyed proofreader would have caught. All of this, and Buckley's meandering off into anecdotes of his beloved hometown of Camden, South Carolina and philosophical disquisitions distract from the central question posed in the book which is both profound and disturbing: can a self-governing republic survive without a consensus moral code shared by a large majority of its citizens? This is a question stalwarts of Western civilisation need to be asking themselves in this non-judgemental, multi-cultural age, and I wish Buckley had posed it more clearly in this book, which despite the title, has nothing whatsoever to do with that regrettable yet prefixally-eponymous McNewspaper.

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February 2004

Ferry, Georgina. A Computer Called LEO. London: Fourth Estate, 2003. ISBN 1-84115-185-8.
I'm somewhat of a computer history buff (see my Babbage and UNIVAC pages), but I knew absolutely nothing about the world's first office computer before reading this delightful book. On November 29, 1951 the first commercial computer application went into production on the LEO computer, a vacuum tube machine with mercury delay line memory custom designed and built by—(UNIVAC? IBM?)—nope: J. Lyons & Co. Ltd. of London, a catering company which operated the Lyons Teashops all over Britain. LEO was based on the design of the Cambridge EDSAC, but with additional memory and modifications for commercial work. Many present-day disasters in computerisation projects could be averted from the lessons of Lyons, who not only designed, built, and programmed the first commercial computer from scratch but understood from the outset that the computer must fit the needs and operations of the business, not the other way around, and managed thereby to succeed on the very first try. LEO remained on the job for Lyons until January 1965. (How many present-day computers will still be running 14 years after they're installed?) A total of 72 LEO II and III computers, derived from the original design, were built, and some remained in service as late as 1981. The LEO Computers Society maintains an excellent Web site with many photographs and historical details.

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Alinsky, Saul D. Rules for Radicals. New York: Random House, 1971. ISBN 0-679-72113-4.
Ignore the title. Apart from the last two chapters, which are dated, there is remarkably little ideology here and a wealth of wisdom directly applicable to anybody trying to accomplish something in the real world, entrepreneurs and Open Source software project leaders as well as social and political activists. Alinsky's unrelenting pragmatism and opportunism are a healthy antidote to the compulsive quest for purity which so often ensnares the idealistic in such endeavours.

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Heinlein, Robert A. For Us, The Living. New York: Scribner, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-5998-X.
I was ambivalent about reading this book, knowing that Robert and Virginia Heinlein destroyed what they believed to be all copies of the manuscript shortly before the author's death in 1988, and that Virginia Heinlein died in 2003 before being informed of the discovery of a long-lost copy. Hence, neither ever gave their permission that it be published. This is Heinlein's first novel, written in 1938–1939. After rejection by Macmillan and then Random House, he put the manuscript aside in June 1939 and never attempted to publish it subsequently. His first fiction sale, the classic short story “Life-Line”, to John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction later in 1939 launched Heinlein's fifty year writing career. Having read almost every word Heinlein wrote, I decided to go ahead and see how it all began, and I don't regret that decision. Certainly nobody should read this as an introduction to Heinlein—it's clear why it was rejected in 1939—but Heinlein fans will find here, in embryonic form, many of the ideas and themes expressed in Heinlein's subsequent works. It also provides a glimpse at the political radical Heinlein (he'd run unsuccessfully for the California State Assembly in 1938 as a Democrat committed to Upton Sinclair's Social Credit policies), with the libertarian outlook of his later years already beginning to emerge. Much of the book is thinly—often very thinly—disguised lectures on Heinlein's political, social, moral, and economic views, but occasionally you'll see the great storyteller beginning to flex his muscles.

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Schulman, J. Neil. Stopping Power. Pahrump, NV: Pulpless.Com, [1994] 1999. ISBN 1-58445-057-6.
The paperback edition is immediately available from the link above. This and most of the author's other works are supposed to be available in electronic form for online purchase and download from his Web site, but the ordering links appear to be broken at the moment. Note that the 1999 paperback contains some material added since the original 1994 hardcover edition.

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Jenkins, Roy. Churchill: A Biography. New York: Plume, 2001. ISBN 0-452-28352-3.
This is a splendid biography of Churchill. The author, whose 39 year parliamentary career overlapped 16 of Churchill's almost 64 years in the House of Commons, focuses more on the political aspects of Churchill's career, as opposed to William Manchester's The Last Lion (in two volumes: Visions of Glory and Alone) which delves deeper into the British and world historical context of Churchill's life. Due to illness, Manchester abandoned plans for the third volume of The Last Lion, so his biography regrettably leaves the story in 1940. Jenkins covers Churchill's entire life in one volume (although at 1001 pages including end notes, it could easily have been two) and occasionally assumes familiarity with British history and political figures which may send readers not well versed in twentieth century British history, particularly the Edwardian era, scurrying to other references. Having read both Manchester and Jenkins, I find they complement each other well. If I were going to re-read them, I'd probably start with Manchester.

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Szpiro, George G. Kepler's Conjecture. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. ISBN 0-471-08601-0.
In 1611, Johannes Kepler conjectured that no denser arrangement of spheres existed than the way grocers stack oranges and artillerymen cannonballs. For more than 385 years this conjecture, something “many mathematicians believe, and all physicists know”, defied proof. Over the centuries, many distinguished mathematicians assaulted the problem to no avail. Then, in 1998, Thomas C. Hales, assisted by Samuel P. Ferguson, announced a massive computer proof of Kepler's conjecture in which, to date, no flaw has been found. Who would have imagined that a fundamental theorem in three-dimensional geometry would be proved by reducing it to a linear programming problem? This book sketches the history of Kepler's conjecture and those who have assaulted it over the centuries, and explains, in layman's language, the essentials of the proof. I found the organisation of the book less than ideal. The author works up to Kepler's general conjecture by treating the history of lattice packing and general packing in two dimensions, then the kissing and lattice packing problems in three dimensions, each in a separate chapter. Many of the same people occupied themselves with these problems over a long span of time, so there is quite a bit of duplication among these chapters and one has to make an effort not to lose track of the chronology, which keeps resetting at chapter boundaries. To avoid frightening general readers, the main text interleaves narrative and more technical sections set in a different type font and, in addition, most equations are relegated to appendices at the end of the book. There's also the irritating convention that numerical approximations are, for the most part, given to three or four significant digits without ellipses or any other indication they are not precise values. (The reader is warned of this in the preface, but it still stinks.) Finally, there are a number of factual errors in historical details. Quibbles aside, this is a worthwhile survey of the history and eventual conquest of one of the most easily stated, difficult to prove, and longest standing problems in mathematics. The proof of Kepler's conjecture and all the programs used in it are available on Thomas C. Hales' home page.

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Zubrin, Robert. The Holy Land. Lakewood, CO: Polaris Books, 2003. ISBN 0-9741443-0-4.
Did somebody say science fiction doesn't do hard-hitting social satire any more? Here, Robert Zubrin, best known for his Mars Direct mission design (see The Case for Mars) turns his acid pen (caustic keyboard?) toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with plenty of barbs left over for the absurdities and platitudes of the War on Terrorism (or whatever). This is a novel which will have you laughing out loud while thinking beyond the bumper-sticker slogans mouthed by politicians into the media echo chamber.

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Haynes, John Earl and Harvey Klehr. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-300-08462-5.
Messages encrypted with a one-time pad are absolutely secure unless the adversary obtains a copy of the pad or discovers some non-randomness in the means used to prepare it. Soviet diplomatic and intelligence traffic used one-time pads extensively, avoiding the vulnerabilities of machine ciphers which permitted World War II codebreakers to read German and Japanese traffic. The disadvantage of one-time pads is key distribution: since every message consumes as many groups from the one-time pad as its own length and pads are never reused (hence the name), embassies and agents in the field require a steady supply of new one-time pads, which can be a logistical nightmare in wartime and risk to covert operations. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 caused Soviet diplomatic and intelligence traffic to explode in volume, surpassing the ability of Soviet cryptographers to produce and distribute new one-time pads. Apparently believing the risk to be minimal, they reacted by re-using one-time pad pages, shuffling them into a different order and sending them to other posts around the world. Bad idea! In fact, reusing one-time pad pages opened up a crack in security sufficiently wide to permit U.S. cryptanalysts, working from 1943 through 1980, to decode more than five thousand pages (some only partially) of Soviet cables from the wartime era. The existence of this effort, later codenamed Project VENONA, and all the decoded material remained secret until 1995 when it was declassified. The most-requested VENONA decrypts may be viewed on-line at the NSA Web site. (A few months ago, there was a great deal of additional historical information on VENONA at the NSA site, but at this writing the links appear to be broken.) This book has relatively little to say about the cryptanalysis of the VENONA traffic. It is essentially a history of Soviet espionage in the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s as documented by the VENONA decrypts. Some readers may be surprised at how little new information is presented here. In essence, VENONA messages completely confirmed what Whittaker Chambers (Witness, September 2003) and Elizabeth Bentley testified to in the late 1940s, and FBI counter-intelligence uncovered. The apparent mystery of why so many who spied for the Soviets escaped prosecution and/or conviction is now explained by the unwillingness of the U.S. government to disclose the existence of VENONA by using material from it in espionage cases. The decades long controversy over the guilt of the Rosenbergs (The Rosenberg File, August 2002) has been definitively resolved by disclosure of VENONA—incontrovertible evidence of their guilt remained secret, out of reach to historians, for fifty years after their crimes. This is a meticulously-documented work of scholarly history, not a page-turning espionage thriller; it is probably best absorbed in small doses rather than one cover to cover gulp.

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March 2004

Grisham, John. The King of Torts. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN 0-385-50804-2.
A mass market paperback edition is now available.

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Lynn, Richard and Tatu Vanhanen. IQ and the Wealth of Nations. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002. ISBN 0-275-97510-X.
Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, said in April 2000 that intelligence “is one commodity equally distributed among the world's people”. But is this actually the case? Numerous studies of the IQ of the populations of various countries have been performed from the 1930s to the present and with few exceptions, large variations have been found in the mean IQs of countries—more than two standard deviations between the extremes—while different studies of the same population show remarkable consistency, and countries with similar populations in the same region of the world tend to have roughly the same mean IQ. Many social scientists believe that these results are attributable to cultural bias in IQ tests, or argue that IQ tests measure not intelligence, but rather proficiency in taking IQ tests, which various educational systems and environments develop to different degrees. The authors of this book accept the IQ test results at face value and pose the question, “Whatever IQ measures, how accurately does the average IQ of a country's population correlate with its economic success, measured both by per capita income and rate of growth over various historical periods?” From regression studies of 81 countries whose mean population IQ is known and 185 countries where IQ is known or estimated based on neighbouring countries, they find that IQ correlates with economic development better than any other single factor advanced in prior studies. IQ, in conjunction with a market economy and, to a lesser extent, democratic governance “explains” (in the strict sense of the square of the correlation coefficient) more than 50% of the variation in GDP per capita and other measures of economic development (of course, IQ, economic freedom, and democracy may not be independent variables). Now, correlation is not causation, but the evidence that IQ stabilises early in childhood and remains largely constant afterward allows one to rule out many potential kinds of influence by economic development on IQ, strengthening the argument for causation. If this is the case, the consequences for economic assistance are profound. For example, providing adequate nutrition during pregnancy and for children, which is known to substantially increase IQ, may not only be the humanitarian thing to do but could potentially promote economic progress more than traditional forms of development assistance. Estimating IQ and economic development for a large collection of disparate countries is a formidable challenge, and this work contains more correction, normalisation, and adjustment factors than a library full of physics research—close to half the book is data tables and source documentation, and non-expert readers cannot be certain that source data might not have been selected which tend to confirm the hypothesis and others excluded. But this is a hypothesis which can be falsified by further research, which would seem well-warranted. Scientists and policy makers must live in the real world and are ill advised to ignore aspects of it which make them uncomfortable. (If these comments move you to recommend Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, you needn't—I've read it twice before I started keeping this list, and found it well-argued. But you may also want to weigh the points raised in J. Philippe Rushton's critique of Gould's book.)

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Lewis, Sinclair. It Can't Happen Here. New York: Signet, [1935] 1993. ISBN 0-451-52582-5.
Just when you need it, this classic goes out of print. Second-hand copies at reasonable prices are available from the link above or through abebooks.com. I wonder to what extent this novel might have motivated Heinlein to write For Us, The Living (February 2004) a few years later. There are interesting parallels between Lewis's authoritarian dystopia and the 1944–1950 dictatorial interregnum in Heinlein's novel. Further, one of the utopian reformers Lewis mocks is Upton Sinclair, of whom Heinlein was a committed follower at the time, devoting much of the latter part of For Us, The Living to an exposition of Sinclair's economic system.

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Sacks, David. Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. ISBN 0-7679-1172-5.
Whaddya gonna do? The hardcover is out of print and the paperback isn't scheduled for publication until August 2004. The U.K. hardback edition, simply titled The Alphabet, is currently available.

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Stöhlker, Klaus J. Adieu la Suisse—Good Morning Switzerland. Le Mont-sur-Lausanne: Éditions LEP, 2003. ISBN 2-606-01086-8.
This is a French translation of the original German edition, which has the same French-and-English title. The French edition can be found in almost any bookshop in la Suisse romande, but I know of no online source.

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McGivern, Ed. Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting. Clinton, NJ: New Win Publishing, [1938] 1975. ISBN 0-8329-0557-7.
This is a facsimile of the 1938 first edition, published to commemorate the centenary of the author's birth in 1874. Earlier facsimile editions of this classic were published in 1945, 1957, and 1965; copies of these as well as the first edition may be found at abebooks.com, but most are substantially more expensive than new copies of the 1975 reprint. Imagine trying to publish a book today which includes advice (pp. 461–462) on shooting targets off an assistant's head!

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Jenkins, Dennis R. and Tony R. Landis. Hypersonic: The Story of the North American X-15. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58007-068-X.
Specialty Press have drastically raised the bar in aviation history publishing. This volume, like the B-36 (August 2003) and XB-70A (September 2003) books mentioned previously here, combines coffee-table book production values, comprehensive historical coverage, and abundant technical details. Virtually absent are the typographical errors, mis-captioned photographs, and poorly reproduced colour photos which too often mar well-intended aviation books from other publishers. In their research, the authors located many more historical photographs than they could include in this book (which has more than 550). The companion X-15 Photo Scrapbook includes 400 additional significant photos, many never before published.

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Dyson, Freeman J. Origins of Life. 2nd. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-521-62668-4.
The years which followed Freeman Dyson's 1985 Tarner lectures, published in the first edition of Origins of Life that year, saw tremendous progress in molecular biology, including the determination of the complete nucleotide sequences of organisms ranging from E. coli to H. sapiens, and a variety of evidence indicating the importance of Archaea and the deep, hot biosphere to theories of the origin of life. In this extensively revised second edition, Dyson incorporates subsequent work relevant to his double-origin (metabolism first, replication later) hypothesis. It's perhaps indicative of how difficult the problem of the origin of life is that none of the multitude of experiments done in the almost 20 years since Dyson's original lectures has substantially confirmed or denied his theory nor answered any of the explicit questions he posed as challenges to experimenters.

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April 2004

Weightman, Gavin. The Frozen-Water Trade. New York: Hyperion, 2003. ISBN 0-7868-8640-4.
Those who scoff at the prospect of mining lunar Helium-3 as fuel for Earth-based fusion power plants might ponder the fact that, starting in 1833, British colonists in India beat the sweltering heat of the subcontinent with a steady, year-round supply of ice cut in the winter from ponds and rivers in Massachusetts and Maine and shipped in the holds of wooden sailing ships—a voyage of some 25,000 kilometres and 130 days. In 1870 alone, 17,000 tons of ice were imported by India in ships sailing from Boston. Frederic Tudor, who first conceived the idea of shipping winter ice, previously considered worthless, to the tropics, was essentially single-handedly responsible for ice and refrigeration becoming a fixture of daily life in Western communities around the world. Tudor found fortune and fame in creating an industry based on commodity which beforehand simply melted away every spring. No technological breakthrough was required or responsible—this is a classic case of creating a market by filling a need of which customers were previously unaware. In the process, Tudor suffered just about every adversity one can imagine and never gave up, an excellent illustration that the one essential ingredient of entrepreneurial success is the ability to “take a whacking and keep on hacking”.

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Olson, Walter K. The Rule of Lawyers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003. ISBN 0-312-28085-8.
The author operates the valuable Overlawyered.com Web site. Those who've observed that individuals with a clue are under-represented on juries in the United States will be delighted to read on page 217 of the Copiah County, Mississippi jury which found for the plaintiff and awarded US$75 billion in damages. When asked why, jurors said they'd intended to award “only” US$75 million, but nobody knew how many zeroes to write down for a million, and they'd guessed nine.

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Walsh, Jill Paton and Dorothy L. Sayers. A Presumption of Death. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN 0-312-29100-0.
This is an entirely new Lord Peter Wimsey mystery written by Jill Paton Walsh, based upon the “Wimsey Papers”—mock wartime letters among members of the Wimsey family by Dorothy L. Sayers, published in the London Spectator in 1939 and 1940. Although the hardcover edition is 378 pages long, the type is so large that this is almost a novella in length, and the plot is less intricate, it seems to me, than the genuine article. Walsh, who was three years old at the period in which the story is set, did her research well: I thought I'd found half a dozen anachronisms, but on each occasion investigation revealed the error to be mine. But please, RAF pilots do not “bale” out of their Spitfires—they bail out!

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Muirden, James. A Rhyming History of Britain: 55 B.C.A.D. 1966. Illustrated by David Eccles. New York: Walker and Company, 2003. ISBN 0-8027-7680-9.

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Rucker, Rudy. Frek and the Elixir. New York: Tor, 2004. ISBN 0-765-31058-9.
Phrase comments in dialect of Unipusk aliens in novel. Congratulate author's hitting sweet spot combining Heinlein juvenile adventure, Rucker zany imagination, and Joseph Campbell hero myth. Assert suitable for all ages. Direct readers to extensive (145 page) working notes for the book, and book's Web site, with two original oil paintings illustrating scenes. Commend author for attention to detail: two precise dates in the years 3003 and 3004 appear in the story, and the days of the week are correct! Show esteemed author and humble self visiting Unipusk saucer base in July 2002.

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Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West: An Abridged Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1918, 1922, 1932, 1959, 1961] 1991. ISBN 0-19-506634-0.
Only rarely do I read abridged editions. I chose this volume simply because it was the only readily-available English translation of the work. In retrospect, I don't think I could have handled much more Spengler, at least in one dose. Even in English, reading Spengler conjures up images of great mountain ranges of polysyllabic German philosophical prose. For example, chapter 21 begins with the following paragraph. “Technique is as old as free-moving life itself. The original relation between a waking-microcosm and its macrocosm—‘Nature’—consists in a mental sensation which rises from mere sense-impressions to sense-judgement, so that already it works critically (that is, separatingly) or, what comes to the same thing, causal-analytically”. In this abridged edition the reader need cope only with a mere 415 pages of such text. It is striking the extent to which today's postmodern nostrums of cultural relativism were anticipated by Spengler.

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Lileks, James. The Gallery of Regrettable Food. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001. ISBN 0-609-60782-0.
The author is a syndicated columnist and pioneer blogger. Much of the source material for this book and a wealth of other works in progress are available on the author's Web site.

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Verne, Jules. Voyage au centre de la terre. Paris: Gallimard, [1864] 1998. ISBN 2-07-051437-4.
A free electronic edition of this text is available from Project Gutenberg. This classic adventure is endlessly adaptable: you may prefer a translation in English, German, or Spanish. The 1959 movie with James Mason and Pat Boone is a fine flick but substantially departs from Verne's story in many ways: of the three principal characters in the novel, two are rather unsympathetic and the third taciturn in the extreme—while Verne was just having his usual fun with Teutonic and Nordic stereotypes, one can see that this wouldn't work for Hollywood. Rick Wakeman's musical edition is, however, remarkably faithful to the original.

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May 2004

Spufford, Francis. Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin. London: Faber and Faber, 2003. ISBN 0-571-21496-7.
It is rare to encounter a book about technology and technologists which even attempts to delve into the messy real-world arena where science, engineering, entrepreneurship, finance, marketing, and government policy intersect, yet it is there, not solely in the technological domain, that the roots of both great successes and calamitous failures lie. Backroom Boys does just this and pulls it off splendidly, covering projects as disparate as the Black Arrow rocket, Concorde, mid 1980s computer games, mobile telephony, and sequencing the human genome. The discussion on pages 99 and 100 of the dynamics of new product development in the software business is as clear and concise a statement I've seen of the philosophy that's guided my own activities for the past 25 years. While celebrating the technological renaissance of post-industrial Britain, the author retains the characteristic British intellectual's disdain for private enterprise and economic liberty. In chapter 4, he describes Vodaphone's development of the mobile phone market: “It produced a blind, unplanned, self-interested search strategy, capitalism's classic method for exploring a new space in the market where profit may be found.” Well…yes…indeed, but that isn't just “capitalism's” classic method, but the very one employed with great success by life on Earth lo these four and a half billion years (see The Genius Within, April 2003). The wheels fall off in chapter 5. Whatever your position may have been in the battle between Celera and the public Human Genome Project, Spufford's collectivist bias and ignorance of economics (simply correcting the noncontroversial errors in basic economics in this chapter would require more pages than it fills) gets in the way of telling the story of how the human genome came to be sequenced five years before the original estimated date. A truly repugnant passage on page 173 describes “how science should be done”. Taxpayer-funded researchers, a fine summer evening, “floated back downstream carousing, with stubs of candle stuck to the prows, … and the voices calling to and fro across the water as the punts drifted home under the overhanging trees in the green, green, night.“ Back to the taxpayer-funded lab early next morning, to be sure, collecting their taxpayer-funded salaries doing the work they love to advance their careers. Nary a word here of the cab drivers, sales clerks, construction workers and, yes, managers of biotech start-ups, all taxed to fund this scientific utopia, who lack the money and free time to pass their own summer evenings so sublimely. And on the previous page, the number of cells in the adult body of C. elegans is twice given as 550. Gimme a break—everybody knows there are 959 somatic cells in the adult hermaphrodite, 1031 in the male; he's confusing adults with 558-cell newly-hatched L1 larvæ.

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Powell, Jim. FDR's Folly. New York: Crown Forum, 2003. ISBN 0-7615-0165-7.

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Vallee, Jacques. The Heart of the Internet. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2003. ISBN 1-57174-369-3.
The author (yes, that Jacques Vallee) recounts the history of the Internet from an insider's perspective: first as a member of Doug Engelbart's Augmentation group at SRI from 1971, and later as a developer of the pioneering Planet conferencing system at the Institute for the Future and co-founder of the 1976 spin-off InfoMedia. He does an excellent job both of sketching Engelbart's still unrealised vision of computer networks as a means of connecting human minds in new ways, and in describing how it, like any top-down system design, was doomed to fail in the real world populated by idiosyncratic and innovative human beings. He celebrates the organic, unplanned growth of the Internet so far and urges that it be allowed to continue, free of government and commercial constraints. The present-day state of the Internet worries him as it worries me; he eloquently expresses the risk as follows (p. 162): “As a venture capitalist who invests in high tech, I have to worry that the web will be perceived as an increasingly corrupt police state overlying a maze of dark alleys and unsafe practices outside the rule of law. The public and many corporations will be reluctant to embrace a technology fraught with such problems. The Internet economy will continue to grow, but it will do so at a much slower pace than forecast by industry analysts.” This is precisely the scenario I have come to call “the Internet slum”. The description of the present-day Internet and what individuals can do to protect their privacy and defend their freedom in the future is sketchy and not entirely reliable. For example, on page 178, “And who has time to keep complete backup files anyway?”, which rhetorical question I would answer, “Well, anybody who isn't a complete idiot.” His description of the “Mesh” in chapter 8 is precisely what I've been describing to gales of laughter since 1992 as “Gizmos”—a world in which everything has its own IPv6 address—each button on your VCR, for example—and all connections are networked and may be redefined at will. This is laid out in more detail in the Unicard Ubiquitous section of my 1994 Unicard paper.

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Solé, Robert. Le grand voyage de l'obélisque. Paris: Seuil, 2004. ISBN 2-02-039279-8.
No, this is not an Astérix book—it's “obélisque”, not “Obélix”! This is the story of how an obelisk of Ramses II happened to end up in the middle of la Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moving a 22 metre, 220 metric ton chunk of granite from the banks of the Nile to the banks of the Seine in the 1830s was not a simple task—it involved a purpose-built ship, an expedition of more than two and a half years with a crew of 121, twelve of whom died in Egypt from cholera and dysentery, and the combined muscle power of 350 artillerymen in Paris to erect the obelisk where it stands today. One has to be impressed with the ancient Egyptians, who managed much the same more than thirty centuries earlier. The book includes a complete transcription and translation of the hieroglyphic inscriptions—Ramses II must have set the all-time record for effort expended in publishing banal text.

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Hitchens, Peter. The Abolition of Liberty. London: Atlantic Books, [2003] 2004. ISBN 1-84354-149-1.
This is a revised edition of the hardcover published in 2003 as A Brief History of Crime. Unlike the police of most other countries (including most of the U.S.), since the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, police in England and Wales focused primarily on the prevention of crime through a regular, visible presence and constant contact with the community, as opposed to responding after the commission of a crime to investigate and apprehend those responsible. Certainly, detection was among the missions of the police, but crime was viewed as a failure of policing, not an inevitable circumstance to which one could only react. Hitchens argues that it is this approach which, for more than a century, made these lands among the safest, civil, and free on Earth, with police integrated in the society as uniformed citizens, not a privileged arm of the state set above the people. Starting in the 1960s, all of this began to change, motivated by a mix of utopian visions and the hope of cutting costs. The bobby on the beat was replaced by police in squad cars with sirens and flashing lights, inevitably arriving after a crime was committed and able to do little more than comfort the victims and report yet another crime unlikely to be solved. Predictably, crime in Britain exploded to the upside, with far more police and police spending per capita than before the “reforms” unable to even reduce its rate of growth. The response of the government elite has not been to return to preventive policing, but rather to progressively infringe the fundamental liberties of citizens, trending toward the third world model of a police state with high crime. None of this would have surprised Hayek, who foresaw it all The Road to Serfdom (May 2002). Theodore Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom (September 2002) provides a view from the streets surrendered to savagery, and the prisons and hospitals occupied by the perpetrators and their victims. In this edition, Hitchens deleted two chapters from the hardcover which questioned Britain's abolition of capital punishment and fanatic program of victim disarmament (“gun control”). He did so “with some sadness” because “the only way to affect politics in this country is to influence the left”, and these issues are “articles of faith with the modern left”. As “People do not like to be made to think about their faith”, he felt the case better put by their exclusion. I have cited these quotes from pp. xi–xii of the Preface without ellipses but, I believe, fairly.

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Cellan-Jones, Rory. Dot.bomb: The Strange Death of Dot.com Britain. London: Aurum Press, [2001] 2003. ISBN 1-85410-952-9.
The dot.com bubble in Britain was shorter and more intense than in the U.S.—the mania didn't really begin until mid-1999 with the public share flotation of Freeserve, then collapsed along with the NASDAQ in the spring of 2000, days after the IPO of evocatively named lastminute.com (a rare survivor). You're probably aware of the much-hyped rise, profligate peak, and ugly demise of boo.com, poster child of the excesses of dot.com Britain, but how about First Tuesday, which almost succeeded in raising US$15 million from two venture funds, putting a valuation of US$62 million on what amounted to a cocktail party? The babe on the back cover beside the author's biography isn't the author (who is male), but British sitcom celeb Joanna Lumley, erstwhile spokesblonde for ephemeral on-line health food peddler Clickmango.com.

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Miranda, Eduardo Reck. Composing Music with Computers. Oxford: Focal Press, 2001. ISBN 0-240-51567-6.

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June 2004

Hutchinson, Robert. Weapons of Mass Destruction. London: Cassell, 2003. ISBN 0-304-36653-6.
This book provides a history and survey of present-day deployment of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The author, a former journalist with Jane's, writes from a British perspective and discusses the evolution of British nuclear forces in some detail. The focus is very much on nuclear weapons—of the 260 pages of text, a total of 196 are devoted to nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Two chapters at the end cover chemical and biological weapons adequately but less thoroughly. Several glaring technical errors make one worry about the reliability of the information on deployments and policy. The discussion of how fission and fusion weapons function is complete gibberish; if that's what interests you, the Nuclear Weapons Frequently-Asked Questions available on the Nuclear Weapons Archive is the place to go. There is one anecdote I don't recall encountering before. The British had so much difficulty getting their staged implosion thermonuclear weapon to work (this was during the years when the McMahon Act denied the British access to U.S. weapon design information) that they actually deployed a 500 kT pure fission weapon, similar to Ted Taylor's “Super Oralloy Bomb” tested in the Ivy King shot in 1952. The British bomb contained 70 kg of highly enriched uranium, far more than the 52 kg unreflected critical mass of U-235. To keep this contraption from going off accidentally in an aircraft accident, the uranium masses were separated by 450 kg of steel balls (I'll bet, alloyed with boron, but Hutchinson is silent on this detail) which were jettisoned right before the bomb was to be dropped. Unfortunately, once armed, the weapon could not be disarmed, so you had to be awfully certain you intended to drop the bomb before letting the ball bearings out.

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Walsh, Jill Paton and Dorothy L. Sayers. Thrones, Dominations. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. ISBN 0-312-96830-2.
This is the first of the Sayers/Walsh posthumous collaborations extending the Lord Peter Wimsey / Harriet Vane mysteries beyond Busman's Honeymoon. (The second is A Presumption of Death, April 2004.) A Wimsey insider informs me the splice between Sayers and Walsh occurs at the end of chapter 6. It was undetectable to this Wimsey fan, who found this whodunit delightful.

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Jenkins, Dennis R., Mike Moore, and Don Pyeatt. B-36 Photo Scrapbook. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58007-075-2.
After completing his definitive history of the B-36, Magnesium Overcast (August 2003), Dennis Jenkins wound up with more than 300 historical photographs which didn't fit in the book. This companion volume includes them all, with captions putting each into context. Many of these photos won't make much sense unless you've read Magnesium Overcast, but if you have and still hanker for more humongous bomber shots, here's your book. On page 48 there's a photo of a New York Central train car to which the twin J47 jet pod from a retired B-36 was attached “to see what would happen”. Well, on a 38.5 km section of straight track, it went 295 km/hour. Amazing, the things they did in the U.S. before the safety fascists took over!

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Haigh, Gideon. Bad Company: The Strange Cult of the CEO. London: Aurum Press, 2004. ISBN 1-85410-969-3.
In this small and quirky book, Haigh puts his finger precisely on the problem with today's celebrity CEOs. It isn't just that they're paid obscenely out of proportion to their contribution to the company, it's that for the most part they don't know all that much about the company's products, customers, and industry. Instead, skilled only in management, they attempt to analyse and operate the company by examining and manipulating financial aggregates. While this may be an effective way to cut costs and improve short-term operating results through consolidation, outsourcing and offshoring, cutting research and development, and reducing the level of customer service, all these things tend to injure the prospects of the company over the long haul. But CEOs are mostly compensated based on current financial results and share price. With length of tenure at the top becoming ever shorter as executives increasingly job hop among companies, the decisions a CEO makes today may have consequences which manifest themselves only after the stock options are cashed in and his successor is left to sort out the mess. Certainly there are exceptions, usually entrepreneurs who remain at the helm of the companies they've founded, but the nature of the CEO rôle in today's publicly traded company tends to drive such people out of the job, a phenomenon with which I have had some experience. I call the book “quirky” because the author draws examples not just from well known corporate calamities, but also films and works of fiction. He is fond of literary allusions and foreign phrases, which readers are expected to figure out on their own. Still, the message gets across, at least to readers with attention spans longer than the 10 to 30 minute time slices which characterise most CEOs. The ISBN on the copyright page is wrong; I've given the correct one here.

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Sarich, Vincent and Frank Miele. Race: The Reality of Human Differences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8133-4086-1.
This book tackles the puzzle posed by the apparent contradiction between the remarkable genetic homogeneity of humans compared to other species, while physical differences between human races (non-controversial measures such as cranial morphology, height, and body build) actually exceed those between other primate species and subspecies. Vincent Sarich, emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, pioneer in the development of the “molecular clock”, recounts this scientific adventure and the resulting revolution in the human evolutionary tree and timescale. Miele (editor of Skeptic magazine) and Sarich then argue that the present-day dogma among physical anthropologists and social scientists that “race does not exist”, if taken to its logical conclusion, amounts to rejecting Darwinian evolution, which occurs through variation and selection. Consequently variation among groups is an inevitable consequence, recognised as a matter of course in other species. Throughout, the authors stress that variation of characteristics among individual humans greatly exceeds mean racial variation, which makes racial prejudice and discrimination not only morally abhorrent but stupid from the scientific standpoint. At the same time, small differences in the mean of a set of standard distributions causes large changes in their representation in the aggregate tail representing extremes of performance. This is why one should be neither surprised nor dismayed to find a “disproportionate” number of Kenyans among cross-country running champions, Polynesians in American professional football, or east Asians in mathematical research. A person who comprehends this basic statistical fact should be able to treat individuals on their own merit without denying the reality of differences among sub-populations of the human species. Due to the broad overlap among groups, members of every group, if given the opportunity, will be represented at the highest levels of performance in each field, and no individual should feel deterred nor be excluded from aspiring to such achievement due to group membership. For the argument against the biological reality of race, see the Web site for the United States Public Broadcasting Service documentary, Race: The Power of an Illusion. This book attempts to rebut each of the assertions in that documentary.

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Meyssan, Thierry ed. Le Pentagate. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2002. ISBN 2-912362-77-6.
This book is available online in both Web and PDF editions from the book's Web site. An English translation is available, but only in a print edition, not online.

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Hofschröer, Peter. Wellington's Smallest Victory. London: Faber and Faber, 2004. ISBN 0-571-21768-0.
Wellington's victory over Napoléon at Waterloo in 1815 not only inspired Beethoven's worst musical composition, but a veritable industry of histories, exhibitions, and re-enactments in Britain. The most spectacular of these was the model of the battlefield which William Siborne, career officer and author of two books on military surveying, was commissioned to build in 1830. Siborne was an assiduous researcher; after surveying the battlefield in person, he wrote to most of the surviving officers in the battle: British, Prussian, and French, to determine the precise position of their troops at the “crisis of the battle” he had chosen to depict: 19:00 on June 18th, 1815. The responses he received indicated that Wellington's Waterloo Despatch, the after-action report penned the day after the battle was, shall we say, at substantial variance with the facts, particularly as regards the extent to which Prussian troops contributed to the victory and the time at which Wellington was notified of Napoléon's attack. Siborne stuck with the facts, and his model, first exhibited in London in 1838, showed the Prussian troops fully engaged with the French at the moment the tide of battle turned. Wellington was not amused and, being not only a national hero but former Prime Minister, was a poor choice as enemy. For the rest of Siborne's life, Wellington waged a war of attrition against Siborne's (accurate) version of the events at Waterloo, with such success that most contemporary histories take Wellington's side, even if it requires believing in spyglasses capable of seeing on the other side of hills. But truth will out. Siborne's companion History of the Waterloo Campaign remains in print 150 years after its publication, and his model of the battlefield (albeit with 40,000 figures of Prussian soldiers removed) may be seen at the National Army Museum in London.

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Smith, Edward E. Triplanetary. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1948] 1997. ISBN 1-882968-09-3.
Summer's here (though you'd never guess from the thermometer), and the time is right for some light reading, so I've begun my fourth lifetime traverse of Doc Smith's Lensman series, which now, by Klono's gadolinium guts, has been re-issued by Old Earth Books in trade paperback facsimiles of the original Fantasy Press editions, complete with all illustrations. The snarky foreword, where John Clute, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, shows off his pretentious post-modern vocabulary and scorn for the sensibilities of an author born in 1890, is best skipped.

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July 2004

Barrow, John D., Paul C.W. Davies, and Charles L. Harper, Jr., eds. Science and Ultimate Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-83113-X.
These are the proceedings of the festschrift at Princeton in March 2002 in honour of John Archibald Wheeler's 90th year within our light-cone. This volume brings together the all-stars of speculative physics, addressing what Wheeler describes as the “big questions.” You will spend a lot of time working your way through this almost 700 page tome (which is why entries in this reading list will be uncharacteristically sparse this month), but it will be well worth the effort. Here we have Freeman Dyson posing thought-experiments which purport to show limits to the applicability of quantum theory and the uncertainty principle, then we have Max Tegmark on parallel universes, arguing that the most conservative model of cosmology has infinite copies of yourself within the multiverse, each choosing either to read on here or click another link. Hideo Mabuchi's chapter begins with an introductory section which is lyrical prose poetry up to the standard set by Wheeler, and if Shou-Cheng Zhang's final chapter doesn't make you re-think where the bottom of reality really lies, you're either didn't get it or have been spending way too much time reading preprints on ArXiv. I don't mean to disparage any of the other contributors by not mentioning them—every chapter of this book is worth reading, then re-reading carefully. This is the collected works of the 21th century equivalent of the savants who attended the Solvay Congresses in the early 20th century. Take your time, reread difficult material as necessary, and look up the references. You'll close this book in awe of what we've learned in the last 20 years, and in wonder of what we'll discover and accomplish the the rest of this century and beyond.

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Neisser, Ulric, ed. The Rising Curve: Long-Term Gains in IQ and Related Measures. Washington: American Psychological Association, 1998. ISBN 1-55798-503-0.
One of the most baffling phenomena in the social sciences is the “Flynn Effect”. Political scientist James Flynn was among the first to recognise the magnitude of increasing IQ scores over time and thoroughly document that increase in more than a dozen nations around the world. The size of the effect is nothing less than stunning: on tests of “fluid intelligence” or g (problem-solving ability, as opposed to acquired knowledge, vocabulary, etc.), Flynn's research shows scores rising at least 3 IQ points per decade ever since testing began—as much as one 15 point standard deviation per generation. If you take these figures at face value and believe that IQ measures what we perceive as intelligence in individuals, you arrive at any number of absurdities: our grandparents' generation having a mean IQ of 70 (the threshold of retardation), an expectation that Einstein-level intellect would be 10,000 times more common per capita today than in his birth cohort, and that veteran teachers would perceive sons and daughters of the students they taught at the start of their careers as gifted to the extent of an IQ 115 student compared to a classmate with an IQ of 100. Obviously, none of these are the case, and yet the evidence for Flynn effect is overwhelming—the only reason few outside the psychometric community are aware of it is that makers of IQ tests periodically “re-standardise” their tests (in other words, make them more difficult) in order to keep the mean score at 100. Something is terribly wrong here: either IQ is a bogus measure (as some argue), or it doesn't correlate with real-world intelligence, or some environmental factor is increasing IQ test performance but not potential for achievement or … well, who knows? These are among the many theories advanced to explain this conundrum, most of which are discussed in this volume, a collection of papers by participants in a 1996 conference at Emory University on the evidence for and possible causes of the Flynn effect, and its consequences for long-term trends in human intelligence. My conclusions from these papers are threefold. First, the Flynn effect is real, having been demonstrated as conclusively as almost any phenomenon in the social sciences. Second, nobody has the slightest idea what is going on—theories abound, but available data are insufficient to exclude any of numerous plausible theories. Third, this is because raw data relating to these questions is sparse and poorly suited to answering the questions with which the Flynn effect confronts us. Almost every chapter laments the shortcomings of the data set on which it was based or exhorts “somebody” to collect data better suited to exploring details of the Flynn effect and its possible causes. If human intelligence is indeed increasing by one standard deviation per generation, this is one of the most significant phenomena presently underway on our planet. If IQ scores are increasing at this rate, but intelligence isn't, then there's something very wrong with IQ tests or something terribly pernicious which is negating the effects of the problem-solving capability they claim to measure. Given the extent to which IQ tests (or their close relatives: achievement tests such as the SAT, GRE, etc.) determine the destiny of individuals, if there's something wrong with these tests, it would be best to find out what's wrong sooner rather than later.

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Wheen, Francis. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. London: Fourth Estate, 2004. ISBN 0-00-714096-7.
I picked up this book in an airport bookshop, expecting a survey of contemporary lunacy along the lines of Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds or Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Instead, what we have is 312 pages of hateful, sneering political rant indiscriminately sprayed at more or less every target in sight. Mr Wheen doesn't think very much of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher (who he likens repeatedly to the Ayatollah Khomeini). Well, that's to be expected, I suppose, in a columnist for the Guardian, but there's no reason they need to be clobbered over and over, for the same things and in almost the same words, every three pages or so throughout this tedious, ill-organised, and repetitive book. Neither does the author particularly fancy Tony Blair, who comes in for the same whack-a-mole treatment. A glance at the index (which is not exhaustive) shows that between them, Blair, Thatcher, and Reagan appear on 85 pages equally sprinkled throughout the text. In fact, Mr Wheen isn't very keen on almost anybody or anything dating from about 1980 to the present; one senses an all-consuming nostalgia for that resplendent utopia which was Britain in the 1970s. Now, the crusty curmudgeon is a traditional British literary figure, but masters of the genre leaven their scorn with humour and good will which are completely absent here. What comes through instead is simply hate: the world leaders who dismantled failed socialist experiments are not, as a man of the left might argue, misguided but rather Mrs Thatcher's “drooling epigones” (p. 263). For some months, I've been pondering a phenomenon in today's twenty-something generation which I call “hate kiddies.” These are people, indoctrinated in academia by ideologues of the Sixties generation to hate their country, culture, and all of its achievements—supplanting the pride which previous generations felt with an all-consuming guilt. This seems, in many otherwise gifted and productive people, to metastasise in adulthood into an all-consuming disdain and hate for everything; it's like the end point of cultural relativism is the belief that everything is evil. I asked an exemplar of this generation once whether he could name any association of five or more people anywhere on Earth which was not evil: nope. Detesting his “evil” country and government, I asked whether he could name any other country which was less evil or even somewhat good: none came to mind. (If you want to get a taste of this foul and poisonous weltanschauung, visit the Slashdot site and read the comments posted for almost any article. This site is not a parody—this is how the young technological elite really think, or rather, can't think.) In Francis Wheen, the hate kiddies have found their elder statesman.

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Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Ronald Reagan: An American Hero. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2001. ISBN 0-7894-7992-3.
This is basically a coffee-table book. There are a multitude of pictures, many you're unlikely to have seen before, but the text is sparse and lightweight. If you're looking for a narrative, try Peggy Noonan's When Character Was King (March 2002).

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Sullivan, Scott P. Virtual Apollo. Burlington, Canada: Apogee Books, 2002. ISBN 1-896522-94-7.
Every time I see an Apollo command module in a museum, I find myself marveling, “How did they cram all that stuff into that tiny little spacecraft?”. Think about it—the Apollo command and service modules provided everything three men needed to spend two weeks in space, navigate autonomously from the Earth to the Moon and back, dock with other spacecraft, enter and leave lunar orbit, re-enter the Earth's atmosphere at interplanetary speed, fly to a precision splash-down, then serve as a boat until the Navy arrived. And if that wasn't enough, most of the subsystems were doubly or triply redundant, so even in the event of failure, the ship could still get the crew back home, which it did on every single flight, even the dicey Apollo 13. And this amazing flying machine was designed on drawing boards in an era before computer-aided interactive solid modeling was even a concept. Virtual Apollo uses computer aided design to help you appreciate the work of genius which was the Apollo spacecraft. The author created more than 200 painstakingly researched and highly detailed solid models of the command and service modules, which were used to produce the renderings in this book. Ever wondered how the Block II outward-opening crew hatch worked? See pages 41–43. How the devil did they make the docking probe removable? Pages 47–49. Regrettably, the attention to detail which went into production of the models and images didn't follow through to the captions and text, which have apparently been spell-checked but never carefully proofread and contain almost a complete set of nerdish stumbles: its/it's, lose/loose, principal/principle, etc. Let's hope these are remedied in a subsequent edition, and especially that the author or somebody equally talented extends this labour of love to include the lunar module as well.

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Royce, Kenneth W. Hologram of Liberty. Ignacio, CO: Javelin Press, 1997. ISBN 1-888766-03-4.
The author, who also uses the nom de plume “Boston T. Party”, provides a survey of the tawdry machinations which accompanied the drafting and adoption of the United States Constitution, making the case that the document was deliberately designed to permit arbitrary expansion of federal power, with cosmetic limitations of power to persuade the states to ratify it. It is striking the extent to which not just vocal anti-federalists like Patrick Henry, but also Thomas Jefferson, anticipated precisely how the federal government would slip its bonds—through judiciary power and the creation of debt, both of which were promptly put into effect by John Marshall and Alexander Hamilton, respectively. Writing on this topic seems to have, as an occupational hazard, a tendency to rant. While Royce never ascends to the coruscating rhetoric of Lysander Spooner's No Treason, there is a great deal of bold type here, as well as some rather curious conspiracy theories (which are, in all fairness, presented for the reader's consideration, not endorsed by the author). Oddly, although chapter 11 discusses the 27th amendment (Congressional Pay Limitation)—proposed in 1789 as part of the original Bill of Rights, but not ratified until 1992—it is missing from the text of the Constitution in appendix C.

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Malmsten, Ernst, Erik Portanger, and Charles Drazin. Boo Hoo. London: Arrow Books, 2001. ISBN 0-09-941837-1.
In the last few years of the twentieth century, a collective madness seized the investment community, who stumbled over one another to throw money at companies with no sales, profits, assets, or credible plans, simply because they appended “.com” to their name and identified themselves in some way with the Internet. Here's an insider's story of one of the highest fliers, boo.com, which was one of the first to fall when sanity began to return in early 2000. Ernst Malmsten, co-founder and CEO of boo, and his co-authors trace its trajectory from birth to bankruptcy. On page 24, Malmsten describes what was to make boo different: “This was still a pretty new idea. Most of the early American internet companies had sprung from the minds of technologists. All they cared about was functionality and cost.” Well, what happens when you start a technology-based business and don't care about functionality and cost? About what you'd expect: boo managed to burn through about US$135 million of other peoples' money in 18 months, generating total sales of less than US$2 million. A list of subjects about which the founders were clueless includes technology, management, corporate finance, accounting, their target customers, suppliers, and competition. “Market research? That was something Colgate did before it launched a new toothpaste. The internet was something you had to feel in your fingertips.” (page 47). Armed with exquisitely sensitive fingertips and empty heads, they hired the usual “experts” to help them out: J.P. Morgan, Skadden Arps, Leagas Delaney, Hill & Knowlton, Heidrick & Struggles, and the Boston Consulting Group, demonstrating once again that the only way to screw up quicker and more expensively than ignorance alone is to enlist professional help. But they did have style: every ritzy restaurant, exclusive disco, Concorde day-trip to New York, and lavish party for the staff is chronicled in detail, leaving one to wonder if there was a single adult in the company thinking about how quickly the investors' money was going down the drain. They spent more than US$22 million on advertising and PR before their Web site was working which, when it finally did open to the public, took dial-up users four minutes to download the Flash-based home page and didn't accept orders at all from Macintosh users. But these are mere matters of “functionality and cost” which obsess nerdy technologists and green eyeshade entrepreneurs like myself.

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August 2004

Halperin, James L. The First Immortal. New York: Del Rey, 1998. ISBN 0-345-542182-5.
As Yogi Berra said, “It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” In this novel, the author tackles one of the most daunting challenges in science fiction: the multi-generation saga which spans its publication date. There are really only two ways to approach this problem: show the near future in soft focus, concentrating on characters and avoiding any mention of news and current events, or boldly predict and take your lumps when you inevitably get it wrong. Hey, even if you do, odds are the books will either be on readers' shelves or in the remainder bins by the time reality diverges too far from the story line. Halperin opts for the latter approach. Preachy novels with an agenda have a tendency to sit on my shelf quite a while until I get around to them—in this case six years. (The hardcover I bought in 1998 is out of print, so I've linked to the paperback which remains available.) The agenda here is cryonics, the resurrection myth of the secular humanists, presented in full dogmatic form: vitrification, cryogenic storage of the dead (or their heads, for the budget-conscious), nanotechnological restoration of damage due to freezing, repair of disease damage and genetic defects, reversal of aging, organ and eventually full body cloning, brain state backup and uploading, etc.—the full mambo chicken meme-bag. The book gets just about everything predicted for the years after its publication as wrong as possible: Xanadu-style back-links in Netscape, the Gore administration, etc. Fine—all were reasonable extrapolations when the first draft was written in 1996. My problem is that the further-out stuff seems, if anything, even less plausible than the near term predictions have proved to be. How likely is it that artificial intelligences with a hundred times the power of the human brain will remain subservient, obedient slaves of their creators? Or that a society with full-on Drexler nanotechnology and space stations outside the orbit of Pluto would be gripped by mass hysteria upon learning of a rain of comets due a hundred years hence? Or that a quasi-socialist U.N. style World Government would spontaneously devolve freedom to its subjects and reduce tax rates to 9.5%? And doesn't the requirement that individuals brought back from the freezer be sponsored by a living person (and hence remain on ice indefinitely if nobody steps up as a sponsor) represent an immoral inter-generational breach of contract with those who paid to be frozen and brought back to life under circumstances they prescribed? The novel is well-written and presents the views of the cryonicists faithfully and effectively. Still, you're left with the sense of having read an advocacy document where story and characters are subordinate to the pitch.

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Novak, David P. DownTime: A Guide to Federal Incarceration. Vancouver, WA: Davrie Communications, 2002. ISBN 0-9710306-0-X.
I read this book in the interest of research, not career planning, although in these days when simply looking askance at some badge-wearing pithecanthropoid thug in a U.S. airport can land you in Club Fed, it's information those travelling to that country might be wise to take on board before getting on board. This is a 170 page letter-size comb bound book whose camera-ready copy appears to have been printed on a daisy wheel printer. I bought my copy through Amazon, but the publisher appears to have removed the book from the general distribution channels; you can order it directly from the publisher. My comments are based upon the March 2002 edition. According to the publisher's Web site, the book was completely rewritten in January 2004, which edition I've not seen.

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Beckerman, Marty. Generation S.L.U.T.. New York: MTV Books, 2004. ISBN 0-7434-7109-1.
I bought this book based on a recommendation by Hunter S. Thompson. I don't know what the good doctor was smoking—he rarely knows what he's smoking—but this is one messed up, incoherent, choppy, gratuitously obscene, utterly amoral mix of fiction, autobiography, cartoons, newspaper clippings, and statistical factoids seemingly aimed at an audience with an attention span measured in seconds. All together now, “Well, what did you expect from something published by MTV Books?” The “S.L.U.T.” in the title stands for “Sexually Liberated Urban Teens”, and the book purports to be a view from the inside (the author turned 20 while writing the book) of contemporary teenage culture in the United States. One can only consider the word “Liberated” here in a Newspeak sense—the picture painted is of a generation enslaved to hormones and hedonism so banal it brings no pleasure to those who so mindlessly pursue it. The cartoons which break up the fictional thread into blocks of text short enough for MTV zombies are cheaply produced—they re-use a few line drawings of the characters, scaled, mirrored, and with different backgrounds, changing only the text in the balloon. The Addendum by the author is a straight rip-off of Hunter Thompson's style, right down the signature capitalisation of nouns for emphasis. The reader is bludgeoned with a relentless vulgarity which ultimately leaves one numb (and I say this as a fan of both Thompson and South Park). I found myself saying, again and again, “Teenagers in the U.S. can't possibly be this vapid, dissolute, and depraved, can they? Can they?” Er, maybe so, if this Teenwire site, sponsored by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is any indication. (You may be shocked, dismayed, and disgusted by the content of this site. I would not normally link to such material, but seeing as how it's deliberately directed at teenagers, I do so in the interest of showing parents how their kids are are being indoctrinated. Note how the welcome page takes you into the main site even if you don't click “Enter”, and that there is no disclaimer whatsoever regarding the site's suitability for children of any age.)

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Carr, Nicholas G. Does IT Matter? Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004. ISBN 1-59139-444-9.
This is an expanded version of the author's May 2003 Harvard Business Review paper titled “IT Doesn't Matter”, which sparked a vituperous ongoing debate about the rôle of information technology (IT) in modern business and its potential for further increases in productivity and competitive advantage for companies who aggressively adopt and deploy it. In this book, he provides additional historical context, attempts to clear up common misperceptions of readers of the original article, and responds to its critics. The essence of Carr's argument is that information technology (computer hardware, software, and networks) will follow the same trajectory as other technologies which transformed business in the past: railroads, machine tools, electricity, the telegraph and telephone, and air transport. Each of these technologies combined high risk with the potential for great near-term competitive advantage for their early adopters, but eventually became standardised “commodity inputs” which all participants in the market employ in much the same manner. Each saw a furious initial period of innovation, emergence of standards to permit interoperability (which, at the same time, made suppliers interchangeable and the commodity fungible), followed by a rapid “build-out” of the technological infrastructure, usually accompanied by over-optimistic hype from its boosters and an investment bubble and the inevitable crash. Eventually, the infrastructure is in place, standards have been set, and a consensus reached as to how best to use the technology in each industry, at which point it's unlikely any player in the market will be able to gain advantage over another by, say, finding a clever new way to use railroads, electricity, or telephones. At this point the technology becomes a commodity input to all businesses, and largely disappears off the strategic planning agenda. Carr believes that with the emergence of low-cost commodity computers adequate for the overwhelming majority of business needs, and the widespread adoption of standard vendor-supplied software such as office suites, enterprise resource planning (ERP), and customer relationship management (CRM) packages, corporate information technology has reached this level of maturity, where senior management should focus on cost-cutting, security, and maintainability rather than seeking competitive advantage through innovation. Increasingly, companies adapt their own operations to fit the ERP software they run, as opposed to customising the software for their particular needs. While such procrusteanism was decried in the IBM mainframe era, today it's touted as deploying “industry best practices” throughout the economy, tidily packaged as a “company in a box”. (Still, one worries about the consequences for innovation.) My reaction to Carr's argument is, “How can anybody find this remotely controversial?” Not only do we have a dozen or so historical examples of the adoption of new technologies, the evidence for the maturity of corporate information technology is there for anybody to see. In fact, in February 1997, I predicted that Microsoft's ability to grow by adding functionality to its products was about to reach the limit, and looking back, it was with Office 97 that customers started to push back, feeling the added “features” (such as the notorious talking paper clip) and initial lack of downward compatibility with earlier versions was for Microsoft's benefit, not their own. How can one view Microsoft's giving back half its cash hoard to shareholders in a special dividend in 2004 (and doubling its regular dividend, along with massive stock buybacks), as anything other than acknowledgement of this reality. You only give your cash back to the investors (or buy your own stock), when you can't think of anything else to do with it which will generate a better return. So, if there's to be a a “next big thing”, Microsoft do not anticipate it coming from them.

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Ryn, Claes G. America the Virtuous. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0-7658-0219-8.
If you've been following political commentary of the more cerebral kind recently, you may have come across the term “neo-Jacobin” and thought “Whuzzat? I thought those guys went out with the tumbrels and guillotines.” Claes Ryn coined the term “neo-Jacobin” more than decade ago, and in this book explains the philosophical foundation, historical evolution, and potential consequences of that tendency for the U.S. and other Western societies. A neo-Jacobin is one who believes that present-day Western civilisation is based on abstract principles, knowable through pure reason, which are virtuous, right, and applicable to all societies at all times. This is precisely what the original Jacobins believed, with Jacobins old and new drawing their inspiration from Rousseau and John Locke. The claim of superiority of Western civilisation makes the neo-Jacobin position superficially attractive to conservatives, who find it more congenial than post-modernist villification of Western civilisation as the source of all evil in the world. But true conservatism, and the philosophy shared by most of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, rejects abstract theories and utopian promises in favour of time-proven solutions which take into account the imperfections of human beings and the institutions they create. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 6, “Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses, and the evils incident to society in every shape.” Sadly, we have not, and are unlikely to ever see the end of such theories as long as pointy-heads with no practical experience, but armed with intimidating prose, are able to persuade true believers they've come up with something better than the collective experience of every human who's ever lived on this planet before them. The French Revolution was the first modern attempt to discard history and remake the world based on rationality, but its lessons failed to deter numerous subsequent attempts, at an enormous cost in human life and misery, the most recently concluded such experiment being Soviet Communism. They all end badly. Ryn believes the United States is embarking on the next such foredoomed adventure, declaring its “universal values” (however much at variance with those of its founders) to be applicable everywhere, and increasingly willing to impose them by the sword “in the interest of the people” where persuasion proves inadequate. Although there is some mention of contemporary political figures, this is not at all a partisan argument, nor does it advocate (nor even present) an alternative agenda. Ryn believes the neo-Jacobin viewpoint so deeply entrenched in both U.S. political parties, media, think tanks, and academia that the choice of a candidate or outcome of an election is unlikely to make much difference. Although the focus is primarily on the U.S. (and rightly so, because only in the U.S. do the neo-Jacobins have access to the military might to impose their will on the rest of the world), precisely the same philosophy can be seen in the ongoing process of “European integration”, where a small group of unelected elite theorists are positioning themselves to dictate the “one best way” hundreds of millions of people in dozens of diverse cultures with thousands of years of history should live their lives. For example, take a look at the hideous draft “constitution” (PDF) for the European Union: such a charter of liberty and democracy that those attemping to put it into effect are doing everything in their power to deprive those who will be its subjects the chance to vote upon it. As Michael Müller, Social Democrat member of parliament in Germany said, “Sometimes the electorate has to be protected from making the wrong decisions.” The original Jacobins had their ways, as well.

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Winchester, Simon. The Map that Changed the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06-093180-9.
This is the story of William Smith, the son of an Oxfordshire blacksmith, who, with almost no formal education but keen powers of observation and deduction, essentially single-handedly created the modern science of geology in the last years of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, culminating in the 1815 publication of Smith's masterwork: a large scale map of the stratigraphy of England, Wales, and part of Scotland, which is virtually identical to the most modern geological maps. Although fossil collecting was a passion of the aristocracy in his time, Smith was the first to observe that particular fossil species were always associated with the same stratum of rock and hence, conversely, that rock containing the same population of fossils was the same stratum, wherever it was found. This permitted him to decode the layering of strata and their relative ages, and predict where coal and other minerals were likely to be found, which was a matter of great importance at the dawn of the industrial revolution. In his long life, in addition to inventing modern geology (he coined the word “stratigraphical”), he surveyed mines, built canals, operated a quarry, was the victim of plagiarism, designed a museum, served time in debtor's prison, was denied membership in the newly-formed Geological Society of London due to his humble origins, yet years later was the first recipient of its highest award, the Wollaston Medal, presented to him as the “Father of English Geology”. Smith's work transformed geology from a pastime for fossil collectors and spinners of fanciful theories to a rigorous empirical science and laid the bedrock (if you'll excuse the term) for Darwin and the modern picture of the history of the Earth. The author is very fond of superlatives. While Smith's discoveries, adventures, and misadventures certainly merit them, they get a little tedious after a hundred pages or so. Winchester seems to have been traumatised by his childhood experiences in a convent boarding-school (chapter 11), and he avails himself of every possible opportunity to express his disdain for religion, the religious, and those (the overwhelming majority of learned people in Smith's time) who believed in the Biblical account of creation and the flood. This is irrelevant to and a distraction from the story. Smith's career marked the very beginning of scientific investigation of natural history; when Smith's great geological map was published in 1815, Charles Darwin was six years old. Smith never suffered any kind of religious persecution or opposition to his work, and several of his colleagues in the dawning days of earth science were clergymen. Simon Winchester is also the author of The Professor and the Madman, the story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Scott, David and Alexei Leonov with Christine Toomey. Two Sides of the Moon. London: Simon & Schuster, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-3162-7.
Astronaut David Scott flew on the Gemini 8 mission which performed the first docking in space, Apollo 9, the first manned test of the Lunar Module, and commanded the Apollo 15 lunar landing, the first serious scientific exploration of the Moon (earlier Apollo landing missions had far less stay time and, with no lunar rover, limited mobility, and hence were much more “land, grab some rocks, and scoot” exercises). Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was the first to walk in space on Voskhod 2, led the training of cosmonauts for lunar missions and later the Salyut space station program, and commanded the Soviet side of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project in 1975. Had the Soviet Union won the Moon race, Leonov might well have been first to walk on the Moon. This book recounts the history of the space race as interleaved autobiographies of two participants from contending sides, from their training as fighter pilots ready to kill one another in the skies over Europe in the 1950s to Leonov's handshake in space with an Apollo crew in 1975. This juxtaposition works very well, and writer Christine Toomey (you're not a “ghostwriter” when your name appears on the title page and the principals effusively praise your efforts) does a marvelous job in preserving the engaging conversational style of a one-on-one interview, which is even more an achievement when one considers that she interviewed Leonov through an interpreter, then wrote his contributions in English which was translated to Russian for Leonov's review, with his comments in Russian translated back to English for incorporation in the text. A U.S. edition is scheduled for publication in October 2004.

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Lelièvre, Domnique. L'Empire américain en échec sous l'éclairage de la Chine impériale. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2004. ISBN 2-84855-097-X.
This is a very odd book. About one third of the text is a fairly conventional indictment of the emerging U.S. “virtuous empire” along the lines of America the Virtuous (earlier this month), along with the evils of globalisation, laissez-faire capitalism, cultural imperialism, and the usual scélérats du jour. But the author, who has published three earlier books of Chinese history, anchors his analysis of current events in parallels between the present day United States and the early Ming dynasty in China, particularly the reign of Zhu Di (朱棣), the Emperor Yongle (永樂), A.D. 1403-1424. (Windows users: if you didn't see the Chinese characters in the last sentence and wish to, you'll need to install Chinese language support using the Control Panel / Regional Options / Language Settings item, enabling “Simplified Chinese”. This may require you to load the original Windows install CD, reboot your machine after the installation is complete, and doubtless will differ in detail from one version of Windows to another. It may be a global village, but it can sure take a lot of work to get from one hut to the next.) Similarities certainly exist, some of them striking: both nations had overwhelming naval superiority and command of the seas, believed themselves to be the pinnacle of civilisation, sought large-scale hegemony (from the west coast of Africa to east Asia in the case of China, global for the U.S.), preferred docile vassal states to allies, were willing to intervene militarily to preserve order and their own self-interests, but for the most part renounced colonisation, annexation, territorial expansion, and religious proselytising. Both were tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-racial societies which believed their values universal and applicable to all humanity. Both suffered attacks from Islamic raiders, the Mongols under Tamerlane (Timur) and his successors in the case of Ming China. And both even fought unsuccessful wars in what is now Vietnam which ended in ignominious withdrawals. All of this is interesting, but how useful it is in pondering the contemporary situation is problematic, for along with the parallels, there are striking differences in addition to the six centuries of separation in time and all that implies for cultural and technological development including communications, weapons, and forms of government. Ming dynasty China was the archetypal oriental despotism, where the emperor's word was law, and the administrative and military bureaucracy was in the hands of eunuchs. The U.S., on the other hand, seems split right about down the middle regarding its imperial destiny, and many observers of U.S. foreign and military policy believe it suffers a surfeit of balls, not their absence. Fifteenth century China was self-sufficient in everything except horses, and its trade with vassal states consisted of symbolic potlatch-type tribute payments in luxury goods. The U.S., on the other hand, is the world's largest debtor nation, whose economy is dependent not only on an assured supply of imported petroleum, but also a wide variety of manufactured goods, access to cheap offshore labour, and the capital flows which permit financing its chronic trade deficits. I could go on listing fundamental differences which make any argument by analogy between these two nations highly suspect, but I'll close by noting that China's entire career as would-be hegemon began with Yongle and barely outlasted his reign—six of the seven expeditions of the great Ming fleet occurred during his years on the throne. Afterward China turned inward and largely ignored the rest of the world until the Europeans came knocking in the 19th century. Is it likely the U.S. drift toward empire which occupied most of the last century will end so suddenly and permanently? Stranger things have happened, but I wouldn't bet on it.

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September 2004

Huntington, Samuel P. Who Are We? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. ISBN 0-684-87053-3.
The author, whose 1996 The Clash of Civilisations anticipated the conflicts of the early 21st century, here turns his attention inward toward the national identity of his own society. Huntington (who is, justifiably, accorded such respect by his colleagues that you might think his full name is “Eminent Scholar Samuel P. Huntington”) has written a book few others could have gotten away with without being villified in academia. His scholarship, lack of partisan agenda, thoroughness, and meticulous documentation make his argument here, that the United States were founded as what he calls an “Anglo-Protestant” culture by their overwhelmingly English Protestant settlers, difficult to refute. In his view, the U.S. were not a “melting pot” of immigrants, but rather a nation where successive waves of immigrants accepted and were assimilated into the pre-existing Anglo-Protestant culture, regardless of, and without renouncing, their ethnic origin and religion. The essentials of this culture—individualism, the work ethic, the English language, English common law, high moral standards, and individual responsibility—are not universals but were what immigrants had to buy into in order to “make it in America”. In fact, as Huntington points out, in the great waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of those who came to America were self-selected for those qualities before they boarded the boat. All of this has changed, he argues, with the mass immigration which began in the 1960s. For the first time, a large percentage of immigrants share a common language (Spanish) and hail from a common culture (Mexico), with which it is easy to retain contact. At the same time, U.S. national identity has been eroded among the elite (but not the population as a whole) in favour of transnational (U.N., multinational corporation, NGO) and subnational (race, gender) identities. So wise is Huntington that I found myself exclaiming every few pages at some throw-away insight I'd never otherwise have had, such as that most of the examples offered up of successful multi-cultural societies (Belgium, Canada, Switzerland) owe their stability to fear of powerful neighbours (p. 159). This book is long on analysis but almost devoid of policy prescriptions. Fair enough: the list of viable options with any probability of being implemented may well be the null set, but even so, it's worthwhile knowing what's coming. While the focus of this book is almost entirely on the U.S., Europeans whose countries are admitting large numbers of difficult to assimilate immigrants will find much to ponder here. One stylistic point—Huntington is as fond of enumerations as even the most fanatic of the French encyclopédistes: on page 27 he indulges in one with forty-eight items and two levels of hierarchy! The enumerations form kind of a basso continuo to the main text.

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Holt, John. How Children Fail. rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, [1964] 1982. ISBN 0-201-48402-1.
This revised edition of Holt's classic includes the entire text of the 1964 first edition with extensive additional interspersed comments added after almost twenty years of additional experience and reflection. It is difficult to find a book with as much wisdom and as many insights per page as this one. You will be flabbergasted by Holt's forensic investigation of how many fifth graders (in an elite private school for high IQ children) actually think about arithmetic, and how many teachers and parents delude themselves into believing that parroting correct answers has anything to do with understanding or genuine learning. What is so refreshing about Holt is his scientific approach—he eschews theory and dogma in favour of observing what actually goes on in classrooms and inside the heads of students. Some of his insights about how those cunning little rascals game the system to get the right answer without enduring the submission to authority and endless boredom of what passes for education summoned some of the rare fond memories I have of that odious period in my own life. As a person who's spent a lot of time recently thinking about intelligence, problem solving, and learning, I found Holt's insights absolutely fascinating. This book has sold more than a million copies, but I'd have probably never picked it up had it not been recommended by a kind reader using the recommendation form—thank you!

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Chesterton, Gilbert K. Heretics. London: John Lane, [1905] 1914. ISBN 0-7661-7476-X.
In this collection of essays, the ever-quotable Chesterton takes issue with prominent contemporaries (including Kipling, G.B. Shaw, and H.G. Wells) and dogma (the cults of progress, science, simple living, among others less remembered almost a century later). There is so much insight and brilliant writing here it's hard to single out a few examples. My favourites include his dismantling of cultural anthropology and folklore in chapter 11, the insight in chapter 16 that elevating science above morality leads inevitably to oligarchy and rule by experts, and the observation in chapter 17, writing of Whistler, that what is called the “artistic temperament” is a property of second-rate artists. The link above is to a 2003 Kessinger Publishing facsimile reprint of the 1914 twelfth edition. The reprint is on letter-size pages, much larger than the original, with each page blown up to fit; consequently, the type is almost annoyingly large. A free electronic edition is available.

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Gamow, George. One, Two, Three…Infinity. Mineola, NY: Dover, [1947] 1961. rev. ed. ISBN 0-486-25664-2.
This book, which first I read at around age twelve, rekindled my native interest in mathematics and science which had, by then, been almost entirely extinguished by six years of that intellectual torture called “classroom instruction”. Gamow was an eminent physicist: among other things, he advocated the big bang theory decades before it became fashionable, originated the concept of big bang nucleosynthesis, predicted the cosmic microwave background radiation 16 years before it was discovered, proposed the liquid drop model of the atomic nucleus, worked extensively in the astrophysics of energy production in stars, and even designed a nuclear bomb (“Greenhouse George”), which initiated the first deuterium-tritium fusion reaction here on Earth. But he was also one of most talented popularisers of science in the twentieth century, with a total of 18 popular science books published between 1939 and 1967, including the Mr Tompkins series, timeless classics which inspired many of the science visualisation projects at this site, in particular C-ship. A talented cartoonist as well, 128 of his delightful pen and ink drawings grace this volume. For a work published in 1947 with relatively minor revisions in the 1961 edition, this book has withstood the test of time remarkably well—Gamow was both wise and lucky in his choice of topics. Certainly, nobody should consider this book a survey of present-day science, but for folks well-grounded in contemporary orthodoxy, it's a delightful period piece providing a glimpse of the scientific world view of almost a half-century ago as explained by a master of the art. This Dover paperback is an unabridged reprint of the 1961 revised edition.

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Cowan, Rick and Douglas Century. Takedown. New York: Berkley, 2002. ISBN 0-425-19299-7.
This is the true story of a New York Police Department detective who almost accidentally found himself in a position to infiltrate the highest levels of the New York City garbage cartel, one of the Mafia's fattest and most fiercely guarded cash cows for more than half a century. Cowan's investigation, dubbed “Operation Wasteland”, resulted in the largest organised crime bust in New York history, eliminating the “mob tax” paid by New York businesses which tripled their waste disposal charges compared to other cities. This book was recommended as a real world antidote to the dramatic liberties taken by the writers of The Sopranos. Curiously, I found it confirmed several aspects of The Sopranos I'd dismissed as far-fetched, such as the ability of mobsters to murder and dispose of the bodies of those who cross them with impunity, and the “mad dog” behaviour (think Ralph Cifaretto) of high ranked top-earner wiseguys.

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Stack, Jack with Bo Burlingham. The Great Game of Business. New York: Doubleday, [1992] 1994. ISBN 0-385-47525-X.
When you take a company public in the United States, there's inevitably a session where senior management sits down with the lawyers for the lecture on how, notwithstanding much vaunted constitutional guarantees of free speech, loose lips may land them in Club Fed for “insider trading”. This is where you learn of such things as the “quiet period”, and realise that by trying to cash out investors who risked their life savings on you before any sane person would, you're holding your arms out to be cuffed and do the perp walk should things end badly. When I first encountered this absurd mind-set, my immediate reaction was, “Well, if ‘insider trading’ is forbidden disclosure of secrets, then why not eliminate all secrets entirely? When you're a public company, you essentially publish your general ledger every quarter anyway—why not make it open to everybody in the company and outside on a daily (or whatever your reporting cycle is) basis?” As with most of my ideas, this was greeted with gales of laughter and dismissed as ridiculous. N'importe…right around when I and the other perpetrators were launching Autodesk, Jack Stack and his management team bought out a refurbishment business shed by International Harvester in its death agonies and turned it around into a people-oriented money machine, Springfield Remanufacturing Corporation. My Three Laws of business have always been: “1) Build the best product. 2) No bullshit. 3) Reward the people who do the work.” Reading this book opened my eyes to how I had fallen short in the third item. Stack's “Open Book” management begins by inserting what I'd call item “2a) Inform the people who do the work”. By opening the general ledger to all employees (and the analysts, and your competitors: get used to it—they know almost every number to within epsilon anyway if you're a serious player in the market), you give your team—hourly and salaried—labour and management—union and professional—the tools they need to know how they're doing, and where the company stands and how secure their jobs are. This is always what I wanted to do, but I was insufficiently bull-headed to override the advice of “experts” that it would lead to disaster or land me in the slammer. Jack Stack went ahead and did it, and the results his company has achieved stand as an existence proof that opening the books is the key to empowering and rewarding the people who do the work. This guy is a hero of free enterprise: go and do likewise; emulate and grow rich.

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Bin Ladin, Carmen. The Veiled Kingdom. London: Virago Press, 2004. ISBN 1-84408-102-8.
Carmen Bin Ladin, a Swiss national with a Swiss father and Iranian mother, married Yeslam Bin Ladin in 1974 and lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia from 1976 to 1985. Yeslam Bin Ladin is one of the 54 sons and daughters sired by that randy old goat Sheikh Mohamed Bin Laden on his twenty-two wives including, of course, murderous nutball Osama. (There is no unique transliteration of Arabic into English. Yeslam spells his name “Bin Ladin”, while other members of the clan use “Bin Laden”, the most common spelling in the media. This book uses “Bin Ladin” when referring to Yeslam, Carmen, and their children, and “Bin Laden” when referring to the clan or other members of it.) This autobiography provides a peek, through the eyes of a totally Westernised woman, into the bizarre medieval life of Saudi women and the arcane customs of that regrettable kingdom. The author separated from her husband in 1988 and presently lives in Geneva. The link above is to a U.K. paperback edition. I believe the same book is available in the U.S. under the title Inside the Kingdom : My Life in Saudi Arabia, but at the present time only in hardcover.

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Rucker, Rudy. The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005. ISBN 1-56025-722-9.
I read this book in manuscript form. An online excerpt is available.

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Paulos, John Allen. A Mathematician Plays The Stock Market. New York: Basic Books, 2003. ISBN 0-465-05481-1.
Paulos, a mathematics professor and author of several popular books including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, managed to lose a painfully large pile of money (he never says how much) in Worldcom (WCOM) stock in 2000–2002. Other than broadly-based index funds, this was Paulos's first flier in the stock market, and he committed just about every clueless market-newbie blunder in the encyclopedia of Wall Street woe: he bought near the top, on margin, met every margin call and “averaged down” all the way from $47 to below $5 per share, bought out-of-the-money call options on a stock in a multi-year downtrend, never placed stop loss orders or hedged with put options or shorting against the box, based his decisions selectively on positive comments in Internet chat rooms, and utterly failed to diversify (liquidating index funds to further concentrate in a single declining stock). This book came highly recommended, but I found it unsatisfying. Paulos uses his experience in the market as a leitmotif in a wide ranging but rather shallow survey of the mathematics and psychology of markets and investors. Along the way we encounter technical and fundamental analysis, the efficient market hypothesis, compound interest and exponential growth, algorithmic complexity, nonlinear functions and fractals, modern portfolio theory, game theory and the prisoner's dilemma, power laws, financial derivatives, and a variety of card tricks, psychological games, puzzles, and social and economic commentary. Now all of this adds up to only 202 pages, so nothing is treated in much detail—while the explanation of compound interest is almost tedious, many of the deeper mathematical concepts may not be explained sufficiently for readers who don't already understand them. The “leitmotif” becomes pretty heavy after the fiftieth time or so the author whacks himself over the head for his foolishness, and wastes a lot of space which would have been better used discussing the market in greater depth. He dismisses technical analysis purely on the basis of Elliott wave theory, without ever discussing the psychological foundation of many chart patterns as explained in Edwards and Magee; the chapter on fundamental analysis mentions Graham and Dodd only in passing. The author's incessant rambling and short attention span leaves you feeling like you do after a long conversation with Ted Nelson. There is interesting material here, and few if any serious errors, but the result is kind of like English cooking—there's nothing wrong with the ingredients; it's what's done with them that's ultimately bland and distasteful.

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October 2004

Itzkoff, Seymour W. The Decline of Intelligence in America. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994. ISBN 0-275-95229-0.
This book had the misfortune to come out in the same year as the first edition of The Bell Curve (August 2003), and suffers by comparison. Unlike that deservedly better-known work, Itzkoff presents few statistics to support his claims that dysgenic reproduction is resulting in a decline in intelligence in the U.S. Any assertion of declining intelligence must confront the evidence for the Flynn Effect (see The Rising Curve, July 2004), which seems to indicate IQ scores are rising about 15 points per generation in a long list of countries including the U.S. The author dismisses Flynn's work in a single paragraph as irrelevant to international competition since scores of all major industrialised countries are rising at about the same rate. But if you argue that IQ is a measure of intelligence, as this book does, how can you claim intelligence is falling at the same time IQ scores are rising at a dizzying rate without providing some reason that Flynn's data should be disregarded? There's quite a bit of hand wringing about the social, educational, and industrial prowess of Japan and Germany which sounds rather dated with a decade's hindsight. The second half of the book is a curious collection of policy recommendations, which defy easy classification into a point on the usual political spectrum. Itzkoff advocates economic protectionism, school vouchers, government-led industrial policy, immigration restrictions, abolishing affirmative action, punitive taxation, government incentives for conventional families, curtailment of payments to welfare mothers and possibly mandatory contraception, penalties for companies which export well-paying jobs, and encouragement of inter-racial and -ethnic marriage. I think that if an ADA/MoveOn/NOW liberal were to read this book, their head might explode. Given the political climate in the U.S. and other Western countries, such policies had exactly zero chance of being implemented either when he recommended them in 1994 and no more today.

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Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1913] 2002. ISBN 1-404-33589-7.
The link above is to a paperback reprint of the original 1913 novel, 16th in the original Tom Swift series, which is in the public domain. I actually read this novel on my PalmOS PDA (which is also my mobile phone, so it's usually right at hand). I always like to have some light reading available which doesn't require a long attention span or intense concentration to pass the time while waiting in line at the post office or other dreary moments one can't program, and early 20th century juvenile pulp fiction on a PDA fills the bill superbly. This novel lasted about a year and a half until I finished it earlier today in the check-out line at the grocery store. The PalmOS version I read was produced as a demo from the Project Gutenberg EText of the novel. This Palm version doesn't seem to be available any more (and was inconvenient, being broken into four parts in order to fit on early PalmPilots with limited memory). For those of you who prefer an electronic edition, I've posted downloadable files of these texts in a variety of formats.

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Cabbage, Michael and William Harwood. Comm Check…The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia. New York: Free Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-6091-0.
This is an excellent account for the general reader of the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 accident and subsequent investigation. The authors are veteran space reporters: Cabbage for the Orlando Sentinel and Harwood for CBS News. If you've already read the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report (note that supplementary volumes II through VI are now available), you won't learn anything new about the technical details of the accident and its engineering and organisational causes here, but there's interesting information about the dynamics of the investigation and the individuals involved which you won't find in the formal report. The NASA Implementation Plan for Return to Flight and Beyond mentioned on page 264 is available online.

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Hayward, Steven F. The Real Jimmy Carter. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-090-5.
In the acknowledgements at the end, the author says one of his motivations for writing this book was to acquaint younger readers and older folks who've managed to forget with the reality of Jimmy Carter's presidency. Indeed, unless one lived through it, it's hard to appreciate how Carter's formidable intellect allowed him to quickly grasp the essentials of a situation, absorb vast amounts of detailed information, and then immediately, intuitively leap to the absolutely worst conceivable course of action. It's all here: his race-baiting 1970 campaign for governor of Georgia; the Playboy interview; “ethnic purity”; “I'll never lie to you”; the 111 page list of campaign promises; alienating the Democratic controlled House and Senate before inaugural week was over; stagflation; gas lines; the Moral Equivalent of War (MEOW); turning down the thermostat; spending Christmas with the Shah of Iran, “an island of stability in one of he more troubled areas of the world”; Nicaragua; Afghanistan; “malaise” (which he actually never said, but will be forever associated with his presidency); the cabinet massacre; kissing Brezhnev; “Carter held Hostage”, and more. There is a side-splitting account of the “killer rabbit” episode on page 155. I'd have tried to work in Billy Beer, but I guess you gotta stop somewhere. Carter's post-presidential career, hobnobbing with dictators, loose-cannon freelance diplomacy, and connections with shady middle-east financiers including BCCI, are covered along with his admirable humanitarian work with Habitat for Humanity. That this sanctimonious mountebank who The New Republic, hardly a right wing mouthpiece, called “a vain, meddling, amoral American fool” in 1995 after he expressed sympathy for Serbian ethnic cleanser Radovan Karadzic, managed to win the Nobel Peace Prize, only bears out the assessment of Carter made decades earlier by notorious bank robber Willie Sutton, “I've never seen a bigger confidence man in my life, and I've been around some of the best in the business.”

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Bell, John S. Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1987] 1993. ISBN 0-521-52338-9.
This volume collects most of Bell's papers on the foundations and interpretation of quantum mechanics including, of course, his discovery of “Bell's inequality”, which showed that no local hidden variable theory can reproduce the statistical results of quantum mechanics, setting the stage for the experimental confirmation by Aspect and others of the fundamental non-locality of quantum physics. Bell's interest in the pilot wave theories of de Broglie and Bohm is reflected in a number of papers, and Bell's exposition of these theories is clearer and more concise than anything I've read by Bohm or Hiley. He goes on to show the strong similarities between the pilot wave approach and the “many world interpretation” of Everett and de Witt. An extra added treat is chapter 9, where Bell derives special relativity entirely from Maxwell's equations and the Bohr atom, along the lines of Fitzgerald, Larmor, Lorentz, and Poincaré, arriving at the principle of relativity (which Einstein took as a hypothesis) from the previously known laws of physics.

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Schott, Ben. Schott's Original Miscellany. London: Bloomsbury, 2002. ISBN 1-58234-349-7.
At last—a readily available source one can cite for the definition of the unit “millihelen” (p. 152)!

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Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. ISBN 0-679-72610-1.
The French Revolution is so universally used as a metaphor in social and political writing that it's refreshing to come across a straight narrative history of what actually happened. The French Revolution is a huge, sprawling story, and this is a big, heavy book about it—more than nine hundred pages, with an enormous cast of characters—in large part because each successive set of new bosses cut off the heads of their predecessors. Schama stresses the continuity of many of the aspects of the Revolution with changes already underway in the latter decades of the ancien régime—Louis XVI comes across as kind of Enlightenment Gorbachev—attempting to reform a bankrupt system from the top and setting in motion forces which couldn't be controlled. Also striking is how many of the most extreme revolutionaries were well-off before the Revolution and, in particular, the large number of lawyers in their ranks. Far from viewing the Terror as an aberration, Schama argues that from the very start, the summer of 1789, “violence was the motor of the Revolution”. With the benefit of two centuries of hindsight, you almost want to reach back across the years, shake these guys by the shoulders, and say “Can't you see where you're going with this?” But then you realise: this was all happening for the very first time—they had no idea of the inevitable outcome of their idealism! In a mere four years, they invented the entire malevolent machinery of the modern, murderous, totalitarian nation-state, and all with the best intentions, informed by the persuasively posed yet relentlessly wrong reasoning of Rousseau. Those who have since repeated the experiment, with the example of the French Revolution before them as a warning, have no such excuse.

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Djavann, Chahdortt. Que pense Allah de l'Europe?. Paris: Gallimard, 2004. ISBN 2-07-077202-0.
The author came of age in revolutionary Iran. After ten years living in Paris, she sees the conflict over the Islamic veil in French society as one in which those she calls “islamists” use the words of the West in ways which mean one thing to westerners and something entirely different to partisans of their own cause. She argues what while freedom of religion is a Western value which cannot be compromised, neither should it be manipulated to subvert the social liberty which is equally a contribution of the West to civilisation. Europe, she believes, is particularly vulnerable to infiltration by those who do not share its values but can employ its traditions and institutions to subvert them. This is not a book length treatment, but rather an essay of 55 pages. For a less personally impassioned but more in-depth view of the situation across the Channel, see Le Londonistan (July 2003).

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Lewis, Michael. Moneyball. New York: W. W. Norton, [2003] 2004. ISBN 0-393-32481-8.
Everybody knows there's no faster or more reliable way to make a lot of money than to identify an inefficiency in a market and arbitrage it. (If you didn't know that, consider it free advice and worth everything you paid for it!) Modern financial markets are Hellishly efficient. Millions of players armed with real-time transaction data, massive computing and database resources for data mining, and more math, physics, and economics Ph.D.s than a dozen Ivy League campuses are continuously looking for the slightest discrepancy between price and value, which more or less guarantees that even when one is discovered, it won't last for more than a moment, and that by the time you hear about it, it'll be long gone. It's much easier to find opportunities in slower moving, less intensely scrutinised fields where conventional wisdom and lack of imagination can blind those in the market to lucrative inefficiencies. For example, in the 1980s generic personal computers and graphics adaptors became comparable in performance to special purpose computer aided design (CAD) workstations ten times or more as costly. This created a situation where the entire value-added in CAD was software, not hardware—all the hardware development, manufacturing, and support costs of the existing vendors were simply an inefficiency which cost their customers dearly. Folks who recognised this inefficiency and moved to exploit the opportunity it created were well rewarded, even while their products were still being ridiculed or ignored by “serious vendors”. Opportunities like this don't come around very often, and there's a lot of luck involved in being in the right place at the right time with the skills and resources at hand to exploit one when you do spot it.

But just imagine what you could do in a field mired in tradition, superstition, ignorance, meaningless numbers, a self-perpetuating old boy network, and gross disparities between spending and performance…Major League Baseball, say? Starting in the 1970s and 80s, Bill James and a slowly growing group of statistically knowledgeable and scientifically minded baseball fanatics—outsiders all—began to look beyond conventional statistics and box scores and study what really determines how many runs a team will score and how many games it will win. Their results turned conventional wisdom completely on its head and that, combined with the clubbiness of professional baseball, caused their work to be utterly ignored until Billy Beane became general manager of the Oakland A's in 1997. Beane and his statistics wizard Paul DePodesta were faced with the challenge of building a winning team with a budget for player salaries right at the bottom of the league—they had less to spend on the entire roster than some teams spent on three or four superstar free agents. I've always been fond of the phrase “management by lack of alternatives”, and that's the situation Beane faced. He took on board the wisdom of the fan statisticians and built upon it, to numerically estimate the value in runs—the ultimate currency of baseball—of individual players, and compare that to the cost of acquiring them. He quickly discovered the market in professional baseball players was grossly inefficient—teams were paying millions for players with statistics which contributed little or nothing to runs scored and games won, while players with the numbers that really mattered were languishing in the minors, available for a song.

The Oakland A's are short for “Athletics”, but under Beane it might as well have been “Arbitrageurs”—trading overvalued stars for cash, draft picks, and undervalued unknowns spotted by the statistical model. Conventional scouting went out the window; the A's roster was full of people who didn't look like baseball players but fit the mathematical profile. Further, Beane changed the way the game was played—if the numbers said stolen bases and sacrifice bunts were a net loss in runs long-term, then the A's didn't do them. The sportswriters and other teams thought it was crazy, but it won ball games: an amazing 103 in 2002 with a total payroll of less than US$42 million. In most other markets or businesses competitors would be tripping over one another to copy the methods which produced such results, but so hidebound and inbred is baseball that so far only two other teams have adopted the Oakland way of winning. Writing on the opening day of the 2004 World Series, is is interesting to observe than one of those two is the Boston Red Sox. I must observe, however, amongst rooting for the scientific method and high fives for budget discipline and number crunching, that the ultimate product of professional baseball is not runs scored, nor games, pennants, or World Series won, but rather entertainment and the revenue it generates from fans, directly or indirectly. One wonders whether this new style of MBAseball run from the front office will ultimately be as enjoyable as the intuitive, risk-taking, seat of the pants game contested from the dugout by a Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, or Earl Weaver. This superbly written, fascinating book is by the author of the almost indescribably excellent Liar's Poker. The 2004 paperback edition contains an Afterword recounting the “religious war” the original 2003 hardcover ignited. Again, this is a book recommended by an anonymous visitor with the recommendation form—thanks, Joe!

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Jacobs, Jane. Dark Age Ahead. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-6232-2.
The reaction of a reader who chooses this book solely based on its title or the dust-jacket blurb is quite likely to be, “Huh?” The first chapter vividly evokes the squalor and mass cultural amnesia which followed the fall of Western Rome, the collapse of the Chinese global exploration and trade in the Ming dynasty, and the extinction of indigenous cultures in North America and elsewhere. Then, suddenly, we find ourselves talking about urban traffic planning, the merits of trolley buses vs. light rail systems, Toronto metropolitan government, accounting scandals, revenue sharing with municipalities, and a host of other issues which, however important, few would rank as high on the list of probable causes of an incipient dark age. These are issues near and dear to the author, who has been writing about them ever since her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jacobs was born in 1916 and wrote this book at the age of 87). If you're unfamiliar with her earlier work, the extensive discussion of “city import replacement” in the present volume will go right over your head as she never defines it here. Further, she uses the word “neoconservative” at variance with its usual meaning in the U.S. and Europe. It's only on page 113 (of 175 pages of main text) that we discover this is a uniquely Canadian definition. Fine, she's been a resident of Toronto since 1969, but this book is published in New York and addressed to an audience of “North Americans” (another Canadian usage), so it's unnecessarily confusing. I find little in this book to disagree with, but as a discussion of the genuine risks which face Western civilisation, it's superficial and largely irrelevant.

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O'Neill, John E. and Jerome L. Corsi. Unfit for Command. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-017-4.

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November 2004

Barnett, Thomas P. M. The Pentagon's New Map. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2004. ISBN 0-399-15175-3.
This is one scary book—scary both for the world-view it advocates and the fact that its author is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and participant in strategic planning at the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation. His map divides the world into a “Functioning Core” consisting of the players, both established (the U.S., Europe, Japan) and newly arrived (Mexico, Russia, China, India, Brazil, etc.) in the great game of globalisation, and a “Non-Integrating Gap” containing all the rest (most of Africa, Andean South America, the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia), deemed “disconnected” from globalisation. (The detailed map may be consulted on the author's Web site.) Virtually all U.S. military interventions in the years 1990–2003 occurred in the “Gap” while, he argues, nation-on-nation violence within the Core is a thing of the past and needn't concern strategic planners. In the Gap, however, he believes it is the mission of the U.S. military to enforce “rule-sets”, acting preemptively and with lethal force where necessary to remove regimes which block connectivity of their people with the emerging global system, and a U.S.-led “System Administration” force to carry out the task of nation building when the bombs and boots of “Leviathan” (a term he uses repeatedly—think of it as a Hobbesian choice!) re-embark their transports for the next conflict. There is a rather bizarre chapter, “The Myths We Make”, in which he says that global chaos, dreams of an American empire, and the U.S. as world police are bogus argument-enders employed by “blowhards”, which is immediately followed by a chapter proposing a ten-point plan which includes such items as invading North Korea (2), fomenting revolution in (or invading) Iran (3), invading Colombia (4), putting an end to Wahabi indoctrination in Saudi Arabia (5), co-operating with the Chinese military (6), and expanding the United States by a dozen more states by 2050, including the existing states of Mexico (9). This isn't globocop? This isn't empire? And even if it's done with the best of intentions, how probable is it that such a Leviathan with a moral agenda and a “shock and awe” military without peer would not succumb to the imperative of imperium?

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Barry, Max. Jennifer Government. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. ISBN 1-4000-3092-7.
When you try to explain personal liberty to under-thirty-fivers indoctrinated in government schools, their general reaction is, “Well, wouldn't the big corporations just take over and you'd end up with a kind of corporate fascism which relegated individuals to the rôle of passive consumers?” Of course, that's what they've been taught is already the case—even as intrusive government hits unprecedented new highs—but then logic was never a strong point of collectivist kiddies. Max Barry has written the rarest of novels—a persuasive libertarian dystopia—what it would look like if the “big corporations” really did take over. In this world, individuals take the surname of their employer, and hence the protagonist, Jennifer, is an agent of what is left of the Government—get it? It is a useful exercise for libertarians to figure out “what's wrong with this picture” and identify why corporations self-size to that of the predominant government power: the smaller the government, the more local the optimal enterprise. This is another excellent recommendation by a visitor to this page.

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Miller, John J. and Mark Molesky. Our Oldest Enemy. New York: Doubleday, 2004. ISBN 0-385-51219-8.
In this history of relations between the America and France over three centuries—starting in 1704, well before the U.S. existed, the authors argue that the common perception of sympathy and shared interest between the “two great republics” from Lafayette to “Lafayette, we are here” and beyond is not borne out by the facts, that the recent tension between the U.S. and France over Iraq is consistent with centuries of French scheming in quest of its own, now forfeit, status as a great power. Starting with French-incited and led Indian raids on British settlements in the 18th century, through the undeclared naval war of 1798–1800, Napoleon's plans to invade New Orleans, Napoleon III's adventures in Mexico, Clemenceau's subverting Wilson's peace plans after being rescued by U.S. troops in World War I, Eisenhower's having to fight his way through Vichy French troops in North Africa in order to get to the Germans, Stalinst intellectuals in the Cold War, Suez, de Gaulle's pulling out of NATO, Chirac's long-term relationship with his “personal friend” Saddam Hussein, through recent perfidy at the U.N., the case is made that, with rare exceptions, France has been the most consistent opponent of the U.S. over all of their shared history. The authors don't hold France and the French in very high esteem, and there are numerous zingers and turns of phrase such as “Time and again in the last two centuries, France has refused to come to grips with its diminished status as a country whose greatest general was a foreigner, whose greatest warrior was a teenage girl, and whose last great military victory came on the plains of Wagram in 1809” (p. 10). The account of Vichy in chapter 9 is rather sketchy and one-dimensional; readers interested in that particular shameful chapter in French history will find more details in Robert Paxton's Vichy France and Marc Ferro's biography, Pétain or the eponymous movie made from it.

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Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon Books, [2000, 2001] 2003. ISBN 0-375-71457-X.
This story is told in comic strip form, but there's nothing funny about it. Satrapi was a 10 year old girl in Tehran when the revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran. Her well-off family detested the Shah, had several relatives active in leftist opposition movements, and supported the revolution, but were horrified when the mullahs began to turn the clock back to the middle ages. The terror and mass slaughter of the Iran/Iraq war are seen through the eyes of a young girl, along with the paranoia and repression of the Islamic regime. At age 14, her parents sent her to Vienna to escape Iran; she now lives and works in Paris. Persepolis was originally published in French in two volumes (1, 2). This edition combines the two volumes, with Satrapi's original artwork re-lettered with the English translation.

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Hammersley, Ben. Content Syndication with RSS. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2003. ISBN 0-596-00383-8.
Sometimes the process of setting standards for the Internet just leaves you wanting to avert your eyes. The RSS standard, used by Web loggers, news sites, and other to provide “feeds” which apprise other sites of updates to their content is a fine example of what happens when standards go bad. At first, there was the idea that RSS would be fully RDF compliant, but then out came version 0.9 which used RDF incompletely and improperly. Then came 0.91, which stripped out RDF entirely, which was followed by version 1.0, which re-incorporated full support for RDF along with modules and XML namespaces. Two weeks later, along came version 0.92 (I'm not making this up), which extended 0.91 and remained RDF free. Finally, late in 2002, RSS 2.0 arrived, a further extension of 0.92, and not in any way based on 1.0—got that? Further, the different standards don't even agree on what “RSS” stands for; personally, I'd opt for “Ridiculous Standard Setting”. For the poor guy who simply wants to provide feeds to let folks know what's changed on a Web log or site, this is a huge mess, as it is for those who wish to monitor such feeds. This book recounts the tawdry history of RSS, provides examples of the various dialects, and provides useful examples for generating and using RSS feeds, as well as an overview of the RSS world, including syndication directories, aggregators, desktop feed reader tools, and Publish and Subscribe architectures.

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Gleick, James. Isaac Newton. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. ISBN 0-375-42233-1.
Fitting a satisfying biography of one of the most towering figures in the history of the human intellect into fewer than 200 pages is a formidable undertaking, which James Gleick has accomplished magnificently here. Newton's mathematics and science are well covered, placing each in the context of the “shoulders of Giants” which he said helped him see further, but also his extensive (and little known, prior to the twentieth century) investigations into alchemy, theology, and ancient history. His battles with Hooke, Leibniz, and Flamsteed, autocratic later years as Master of the Royal Mint and President of the Royal Society and ceaseless curiosity and investigation are well covered, as well as his eccentricity and secretiveness. I'm a little dubious of the discussion on pp. 186–187 where Newton is argued to have anticipated or at least left the door open for relativity, quantum theory, equivalence of mass and energy, and subatomic forces. Newton wrote millions of words on almost every topic imaginable, most for his own use with no intention of publication, few examined by scholars until centuries after his death. From such a body of text, it may be possible to find sentences here and there which “anticipate” almost anything when you know from hindsight what you're looking for. In any case, the achievements of Newton, who not only laid the foundation of modern physical science, invented the mathematics upon which much of it is based, and created the very way we think about and do science, need no embellishment. The text is accompanied by 48 pages of endnotes (the majority citing primary sources) and an 18 page bibliography. A paperback edition is now available.

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Babbin, Jed. Inside the Asylum. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-088-3.
You'll be shocked, shocked, to discover, turning these pages, that the United Nations is an utterly corrupt gang of despots, murderers, and kleptocrats, not just ineffectual against but, in some cases, complicit in supporting terrorism, while sanctimoniously proclaiming the moral equivalence of savagery and civilisation. And that the European Union is a feckless, collectivist, elitist club of effete former and wannabe great powers facing a demographic and economic cataclysm entirely of their own making. But you knew that, didn't you? That's the problem with this thin (less than 150 pages of main text) volume. Most of the people who will read it already know most of what's said here. Those who still believe the U.N. to be “the last, best hope for peace” (and their numbers are, sadly, legion—more than 65% of my neighbours in the Canton of Neuchâtel voted for Switzerland to join the U.N. in the March 2002 referendum) are unlikely to read this book.

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Bonner, William with Addison Wiggin. Financial Reckoning Day. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. ISBN 0-471-44973-3.
William Bonner's Daily Reckoning newsletter was, along with a few others like Downside, a voice of sanity in the bubble markets of the turn of millennium. I've always found that the best investment analysis looks well beyond the markets to the historical, social, political, moral, technological, and demographic trends which market action ultimately reflects. Bonner and Wiggin provide a global, multi-century tour d'horizon here, and make a convincing case that the boom, bust, and decade-plus “soft depression” which Japan suffered from the 1990s to the present is the prototype of what's in store for the U.S. as the inevitable de-leveraging of the mountain of corporate and consumer debt on which the recent boom was built occurs, with the difference that Japan has the advantage of a high savings rate and large trade surplus, while the U.S. saves nothing and runs enormous trade deficits. The analysis of how Alan Greenspan's evolution from supreme goldbug in Ayn Rand's inner circle to maestro of paper money is completely consistent with his youthful belief in Objectivism is simply delightful. The authors readily admit that markets can do anything, but believe that in the long run, markets generally do what they “ought to”, and suggest an investment strategy for the next decade on that basis.

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December 2004

Fallaci, Oriana. La Force de la Raison. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2004. ISBN 2-268-05264-8.
If, fifty years from now, there still are historians permitted to chronicle the civilisation of Western Europe (which, if the trends described in this book persist, may not be the way to bet), Fallaci may be seen as a figure like Churchill in the 1930s, willing to speak the truth about a clear and present danger, notwithstanding the derision and abuse doing so engenders from those who prefer to live the easy life, avoid difficult decisions, and hope things will just get better. In this, and her earlier La rage et l'orgueil (June 2002), Fallaci warns, in stark and uncompromising terms verging occasionally on a rant, of the increasing Islamicisation of Western Europe, and decries the politicians, church figures, and media whose inaction or active efforts aid and abet it. She argues that what is at risk is nothing less than European civilisation itself, which Islamic figures openly predict among themselves eventually being transformed through the inexorable power of demographics and immigration into an Islamic Republic of “Eurabia”. The analysis of the “natural alliance” between the extreme political left and radical Islam is brilliant, and brings to mind L'Islam révolutionnaire (December 2003) by terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez). There is a shameful little piece of paper tipped into the pages of the book by the publisher, who felt no need for a disclaimer when earlier publishing the screed by mass murderer “Carlos”. In language worthy of Pierre Laval, they defend its publication in the interest of presenting a «différent» viewpoint, and ask readers to approach it “critically, in light of the present-day international context” (my translation).

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Marasco, Joe. The Software Development Edge. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2005. ISBN 0-321-32131-6.
I read this book in manuscript form when it was provisionally titled The Psychology of Software Development.

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Godwin, Robert ed. Freedom 7: The NASA Mission Reports. Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, 2000. ISBN 1-896522-80-7.
This volume in the superb Apogee NASA Mission Reports series covers Alan Shepard's May 5th, 1961 suborbital flight in Freedom 7, the first U.S. manned space flight. Included are the press kit for the mission, complete transcripts of the post-flight debriefings and in-flight communications, and proceedings of a conference held in June 1961 to report mission results. In addition, the original 1958 request for astronaut volunteers (before it was decided that only military test pilots need apply) is reproduced, along with the press conference introducing the Mercury astronauts, which Tom Wolfe so vividly (and accurately) described in The Right Stuff. A bonus CD-ROM includes the complete in-flight films of the instrument panel and astronaut, a 30 minute NASA documentary about the flight, and the complete NASA official history of Project Mercury, This New Ocean, as a PDF document. There are few if any errors in the transcriptions of the documents. The caption for the photograph of Freedom 7 on the second page of colour plates makes the common error of describing its heat shield as “ablative fiberglass”. In fact, as stated on page 145, suborbital missions used a beryllium heat sink; only orbital capsules were equipped with the ablative shield.

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Lundstrom, David E. A Few Good Men from Univac. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987. ISBN 0-262-12120-4.
The author joined UNIVAC in 1955 and led the testing of the UNIVAC II which, unlike the UNIVAC I, was manufactured in the St. Paul area. (This book uses “Univac” as the name of the company and its computers; in my experience and in all the documents in my collection, the name, originally an acronym for “UNIVersal Automatic Computer”, was always written in all capitals: “UNIVAC”; that is the convention I shall use here.) He then worked on the development of the Navy Tactical Data System (NTDS) shipboard computer, which was later commercialised as the UNIVAC 490 real-time computer. The UNIVAC 1107 also used the NTDS circuit design and I/O architecture. In 1963, like many UNIVAC alumni, Lundstrom crossed the river to join Control Data, where he worked until retiring in 1985. At Control Data he was responsible for peripherals, terminals, and airline reservation system development. It was predictable but sad to observe how Control Data, founded by a group of talented innovators to escape the stifling self-destructive incompetence of UNIVAC management, rapidly built up its own political hierarchy which chased away its own best people, including Seymour Cray. It's as if at a board meeting somebody said, “Hey, we're successful now! Let's build a big office tower and fill it up with idiots and politicians to keep the technical geniuses from getting anything done.” Lundstrom provides an authentic view from the inside of the mainframe computer business over a large part of its history. His observations about why technology transfer usually fails and the destruction wreaked on morale by incessant reorganisations and management shifts in direction are worth pondering. Lundstrom's background is in hardware. In chapter 13, before describing software, he cautions that “Professional programmers are going to disagree violently with what I say.” Well, this professional programmer certainly did, but it's because most of what he goes on to say is simply wrong. But that's a small wart on an excellent, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable book. This book is out of print; used copies are generally available but tend to be expensive—you might want to keep checking over a period of months as occasionally a bargain will come around.

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Lileks, James. Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes from the Horrible '70s. New York: Crown Publishers, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-4640-8.
After turning your tastebuds inside out with The Gallery of Regrettable Food (April 2004), Lileks now tackles what passed for home decoration in the 1970s. Seldom will you encounter a book which makes you ask “What were they thinking?” so many times. It makes you wonder which aspects of the current scene will look as weird twenty or thirty years from now. Additional material which came to hand after the book was published may be viewed on the author's Web site.

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Bovard, James. The Bush Betrayal. New York: Macmillan, 2004. ISBN 1-4039-6727-X.
Having dissected the depredations of Clinton and Socialist Party A against the liberty of U.S. citizens in Feeling Your Pain (May 2001), Bovard now turns his crypto-libertarian gaze toward the ravages committed by Bush and Socialist Party B in the last four years. Once again, Bovard demonstrates his extraordinary talent in penetrating the fog of government propaganda to see the crystalline absurdity lurking within. On page 88 we discover that under the rules adopted by Colorado pursuant to the “No Child Left Behind Act”, a school with 1000 students which had a mere 179 or fewer homicides per year would not be classified as “persistently dangerous”, permitting parents of the survivors to transfer their children to less target-rich institutions.

On page 187, we encounter this head-scratching poser asked of those who wished to become screeners for the “Transportation Security Administration”:

Question: Why is it important to screen bags for IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices]?
  1. The IED batteries could leak and damage other passenger bags.
  2. The wires in the IED could cause a short to the aircraft wires.
  3. IEDs can cause loss of lives, property, and aircraft.
  4. The ticking timer could worry other passengers.
I wish I were making this up. The inspector general of the “Homeland Security Department” declined to say how many of the “screeners” who intimidate citizens, feel up women, and confiscate fingernail clippers and putatively dangerous and easily-pocketed jewelry managed to answer this one correctly.

I call Bovard a “crypto-libertarian” because he clearly bases his analysis on libertarian principles, yet rarely observes that any polity with unconstrained government power and sedated sheeple for citizens will end badly, regardless of who wins the elections. As with his earlier books, sources for this work are exhaustively documented in 41 pages of endnotes.

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Holmes, W. J. Double-Edged Secrets. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, [1979] 1998. ISBN 1-55750-324-9.
This is the story of U.S. Naval Intelligence in the Pacific theatre during World War II, told by somebody who was there—Holmes served in the inner sanctum of Naval Intelligence at Pearl Harbor from before the Japanese attack in 1941 through the end of the war in 1945. Most accounts of naval intelligence in the war with Japan focus on cryptanalysis and use of the “Ultra” information it yielded from Japanese radio intercepts. Holmes regularly worked with this material, and with the dedicated and sometimes eccentric individuals who produced it, but his focus is broader—on intelligence as a whole, of which cryptanalysis was only a part. The “product” delivered by his shop to warfighters in the fleet was painstakingly gleaned not only from communications intercepts, but also traffic analysis, direction finding, interpretation of aerial and submarine reconnaissance photos, interrogation of prisoners, translations of captured documents, and a multitude of other sources. In preparing for the invasion of Okinawa, naval intelligence tracked down an eighty-year-old seashell expert who provided information on landing beaches from his pre-war collecting expedition there. The total material delivered by intelligence for the Okinawa operation amounted to 127 tons of paper. This book provides an excellent feel for the fog of war, and how difficult it is to discern enemy intentions from the limited and conflicting information at hand. In addition, the difficult judgement calls which must be made between the risk of disclosing sources of information versus getting useful information into the hands of combat forces on a timely basis is a theme throughout the narrative. If you're looking for more of a focus on cryptanalysis and a discussion of the little-known British contribution to codebreaking in the Pacific war, see Michael Smith's The Emperor's Codes (August 2001).

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Sharpe, Tom. Wilt in Nowhere. London: Hutchinson, 2004. ISBN 0-09-179965-1.
Tom Sharpe is, in my opinion, the the greatest living master of English farce. Combining Wodehouse's sense of the absurd and Waugh's acid-penned black humour, his novels make you almost grateful for the worst day you've ever had, as it's guaranteed to be a sunny stroll through the park compared to what his characters endure. I read most of Sharpe's novels to date in the 1980s, and was delighted to discover he's still going strong, bringing the misadventures of Henry Wilt up to date in this side-splitting book. The “release the hounds” episode in chapter 13 makes me laugh out loud every time I read it. A U.S. edition is scheduled for publication in June 2005. There are numerous references to earlier episodes in the Wilt saga, but this book can be enjoyed without having read them. If you'd like to enjoy them in order, they're Wilt, The Wilt Alternative, Wilt on High, and then the present volume.

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Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought. New York: Free Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-5535-6.
It's a safe bet that the vast majority of Westerners who have done business in East Asia (China, Japan, and Korea), and Asians who've done business in the West have come to the same conclusion: “Asians and Westerners think differently.” They may not say as much, at least not to the general public, for fear of being thought intolerant, but they believe it on the evidence of their own experience nonetheless.

Psychologist Richard E. Nisbett and his colleagues in China and Korea have been experimentally investigating the differences in Asian and Western thought processes, and their results are summarised in this enlightening book (with citations of the original research). Their work confirms the conventional wisdom—Westerners view the world through a telephoto lens, applying logic and reductionism to find the “one best way”, while Asians see a wide-angle view, taking into account the context of events and seeking a middle way between extremes and apparent contradictions—with experimental effect sizes which are large, robust, and reliable.

Present-day differences in Asian and Western thought are shown to be entirely consistent with those of ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, implying that whatever the cause, it is stable over long spans of history. Although experiments with infants provide some evidence for genetic predisposition, Nisbett suspects that a self-reinforcing homeostatic feedback loop between culture, language, and society is responsible for most of the difference in thought processes. The fact that Asian-Americans and Westernised Asians in Hong Kong and Singapore test between Asian and Western extremes provides evidence for this. (The fact that Asians excel at quintessentially Western intellectual endeavours such as abstract mathematics and theoretical science would, it seems to me, exclude most simple-minded explanations based on inherited differences in brain wiring.)

This work casts doubt upon Utopian notions of an End of History in which Western-style free markets and democracy are adopted by all nations and cultures around the globe. To a large extent, such a scenario assumes all people think like Westerners and share the same values, an assumption to which Nisbett's research offers persuasive counter examples. This may be for the best; both Western and Asian styles of thought are shown as predisposing those applying them to distinct, yet equally dangerous, fallacies. Perhaps a synthesis of these (and other) ways of thinking is a sounder foundation for a global society than the Western model alone.

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