Recent book reviews — April 2012

Title: Adapt, Why Success Always Starts With Failure
Author: Tim Harford
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

With examples from the Iraq war to the recent financial crisis, Harford makes the case that adaptation is more important than great ideas. Although I enjoyed the book, I found myself at times wanting more depth. Harford’s topics are so varied, and so quickly changing, for me this book didn’t have the authoritative tone and focus of a researcher like Dan Arielly’s writing.

(Dad, criticisms of the book aside, I think you might really like this. I thought of you and our recent conversations numerous times when reading it.)

Once experts have acquired a broad knowledge of the political world, deeper expertise in a specific field doesn’t seem to help much.

The three essential steps are: to try new things, in the expectation that some will fail; to make failure survivable, because it will be common; and to make sure that you know when you’ve failed.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a large charitable medical research organization set up by the eccentric billionaire, has an ‘investigator’ programme which explicitly urges ‘researchers to take risks, to explore unproven avenues, to embrace the unknown — even if it means uncertainty or the chance of failure’.

Grants, unlike prizes, are a powerful tool of patronage. Prizes, in contrast, are open to anyone who produces results. That makes them intrinsically threatening to the establishment.

Dairy products are so bad for the planet that Geoff would have done better to toast his bread but not butter it rather than buttering it but not toasting it.

The milk is only a third of the mass of the (Cadbury) chocolate, but even after reckoning the cost of transporting and processing cocoa beans and sugar, melting the chocolate into moulds in the factory, and transporting the final product, the milk is responsible for two-thirds of the carbon footprint of the chocolate.

Title: Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars
Author: William Patry
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4.5 stars

I’ve read a lot of books about copyright but Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars managed to offer eye-opening information. I came away with a better sense of how I want to approach the debate and what language I will use. In addition to debunking many of the common strong-copyright arguments, much of the book explores exaggerated metaphorical language and its muddling role in discussions of copyright. Terms like “pirate” are used to tilt a discussion toward a good/evil dichotomy and to demonize the opposition. In actuality, copyright is an invented paradigm for the un-natural concept of rewarding creators with limited-term monopoly and is essentially an economic discussion. Most eye-opening for me was the author’s belief that the anti-copyright crowd needn’t resort to issues of morality to win its case. Viewed simply in terms of encouraging or discouraging creativity, current copyright law is outrageously over-wrought. While I feel that my own use of copyleft and my encrouagement of sharing is a moral obligation, in the public-debate sphere, it is probably more effective to show how our current copyright laws harm creators and innovation.

The way we have come to talk about copyright is harmful to the way we think about copyright, harm that has led to bad business and bad policy decisions. … In place of reasoned analysis, too often we encounter emotionally laden appeals using ancient, rhetorical devices designed to demonize opponents and to create the impression there is an existential threat to society. In truth, the only threats are to outdated business models. Unless we recognize that the debates over copyright constitute an economic debate about business models, we will never be able to make the correct business and policy decisions.

As a direct consequence of the copyright industries’ decision to rely on laws and litigation rather than the marketplace, many consumers have shifted to other forms of entertainment because those forms of entertainment have as their purpose satisfying consumers’ needs, not denying them. Copyright owners may well find themselves armed to the teeth with weapons against consumers who have left the battlefield.

In 1813, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Isaac McPherson, wrote, “That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his conditions seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lesseing their intensity at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions, then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.”

The utilitarian/consequentialist origin story is based on the assertion that only by providing copyright protection will there be sufficient incentives for authors to distribute their works to the public. … Among the many difficulties with this origin story is that it is not used as a practical guide to legislating. We protect numerous types of works that require no incentive at all, including private letters, business documents, speeches, designs of useful articles, much academic writing and works of architecture. … Even when the issue is the level of incentive, in my 27 years of practicing copyright law, I have never seen a study presented to Congress that even makes a stab at demonstrating that if the proposed legislation is passed, X number of works that would not have been created will be.

The labor origin story is a variant of “don’t reap what you haven’t sown.” Under this theory, copyright exists as recognition of the labor that went into its production: we should, it is often said, protect the fruits of manual labor. Among the faults with this theory are that copyright is not, in fact, based on the degree of labor or time spent in creating a work, but instead on the presence of originality, a different concept altogether.

A powerful metaphor employed to argue that authors (or, more usually their corporate assignees) should have extensive control over the works they create is the metaphor evoking the relationship between an author and the author’s works as that of a parent-child. … There are a number of problems with the metaphor. I will discuss two: (1) no author is an island; and (2) copyright in common law countries is an economic right in commodities, not a moral right, and is granted to facilitate trade in copyrighted works, not to ensure an ongoing parent-child relationship.

In 1909, in passing a new copyright act, Congress addressed the basis for copyright in the United States: The enactment of copyright legislation by Congress under the terms of the Constitution is not based in any natural right that the author has in his writings, for the Supreme Court [in Wheaton v. Peters] has held that such rights as he has are purely statutory rights, but upon the ground that the welfare of the public will be served and progress of science and useful arts will be promoted by securing to authors for limited periods the exclusive right to their writings. … Not primarily for the benefit of the author, but primarily for the benefit of the public such rights are given.

With the advent of the World Wide Web, the piracy metaphor is once again employed, and is now the dominant metaphor for all unauthorized uses on the Internet. It is, however, the same old tired, inapt metaphor, misused for the same old tired purposes: to stop innovation and to permit copyright owners to gain economic benefit that they are not entitled to legally and should not receive as a policy matter.

But if innovation and technological progress are the overwhelming drivers of the U.S. economy and contribute vastly more than the entertainment industries, one would never know it from our copyright policies, which are dominated by a blinkered, one-dimensional ideology, in which copyright is inherently good, and ever more extensive rights and control over consumers and technology is even better.

The copyright wars must be understood as archetypal responses of businesses that are inherently non-innovative and that rely on the innovation of others to succeed. I cannot think of a single significant innovation in either the creation or distribution of works of authorship that owes its origins to the copyright industries. Being forced to rely on others’ innovation creates a great sense of insecurity that is reflected in efforts to control innovators and consumers. Copyright owners live in perpetual fear, but it is a fear that is self-imposed. This fear is manifsted in a refusal to engage in the type of creative destruction that is essential for survival and renewal in a capitalist society, and in congenital marketing myopia. The ascent of lawyers as the heads of many entertainment companies is both a sign of those companies’ lack of commitment to business innovation and a symptom of why the Copyright Wars exist: litigation is not a business model but instead is reflective of the failure of a business model.

Title: The Creative Habit – Learn It and Use It for Life
Author: Twyla Tharp
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

The Creative Habit is an inspiring take on cultivating creativity by a devoted and accomplished artist. Reading Tharp’s thoughts on choreography and art invariably led me to creative successes of my own, inspiring me to make progress composing, to tackle challenging artistic tasks, and to think deeply about my work. I particularly liked the recommendation of listing one’s artistic fears (“others might laugh at this”, “if this idea doesn’t work out, I won’t have time to try another…”) and addressing them directly. I’ll be using some of the books’ terminology in my own teaching, including “entertain the uncomfortable.”

I skipped the majority of the suggested exercises but used a few for further exploration. Rather than answer Tharp’s “essential questions for the artist”, for example, I thought up my own “essential questions for the serious taiko player” and answered those. I wasn’t particularly fond of Tharp’s writing style or the book’s design, but these superficial quibbles didn’t greatly detract from my enjoyment of the book. If you’re looking for a bit of motivation and a creative push for your own work, The Creative Habit might deliver for you too.

The golfer Ben Hogan said, “Every day you don’t practice, you’re one day further from being good.”

Venturing out of your comfort zone may be dangerous, yet you do it anyway because our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable.

Be generous. … To be a great choreographer (or teacher), you have to invest everything you have in your dancers. You have to be so devoted to them and to the finished creation that your dancers become your heroes.

Ernest Hemingway had the nifty trick of always calling it a day at a point when he knew what came next. He built himself a bridge to the next day. … I always quit for the day before everyone’s totally exhausted.

Title: IBM and the Holocaust, The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation
Author: Edwin Black
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4 stars

IBM and the Holocaust reveals in painstaking detail the role of International Business Machines in the Nazi strategy to destroy all European Jews. IBM maintained shocking connections with the Third Reich, through majority-owned subsidiaries like the German Dehomag company. With subterfuge to mask his involvement, IBM-president Thomas Watson personally micro-managed the subsidiaries, indifferent to his machines’ cruel uses. IBM was integral to every step of the Nazi plan, designing custom punchcard machines for the census programs
identifying Jews with record speed. These “Hollerith” punchcard machines processed the capture of Jews, their forced work, and their eventual extermination. IBM equipment existed in nearly every concentration camp, serviced by employees of Dehomag, with Nazi staff trained by IBM subsidiaries. The numbers used to identify concentration camp prisoners in place of names, in many cases stemmed from the IBM punchcard machines.

IBM and the Holocaust provides a unique and terrifying perspective on the holocaust. It is a great contribution to the literature on the subject, but it’s a difficult read. More than the pain of reading about the atrocities, I struggled to resist my own feelings of moral indignation. It was tiring to continually resist the temptation to brand individual Nazis as simply “evil”. I was also frustrated in drawing conclusions from the book. I sense that beneath the obvious warnings against greed and the blind pursuit of profit displayed by Watson and his followers, there are more specific moral lessons. But my attempts to draw parallels to current technology companies are undone by the overwhelming horror of the holocaust. Certainly, tech companies like FinFisher and Amesys are complicit in Syria’s use of internet monitoring to find and kill political dissidents. Apple is damaging the internet and our freedoms in its lust for control and consumer pacification. AT&T and Verizon are collaborators in the over-reach of US government. But in damning these companies, I hesitate to make comparisons to IBM for the overwhelming scale and horror of the holocaust.

If nothing else, the book has inspired me to reflect on the technology in my life. In what ways am I a collaborator in dehumanizing others? I bought a hard-drive last month, for example, concerned only with whether the device met my technical specifications. I don’t know if its maker (Western Digital) treats its workers well and tries to minimize its negative environmental effects. Research would likely have proven fruitless, but all the same, I am embarrassed I didn’t try. In the future, I want to be more careful to consider humanitarian issues alongside technical specifications.

When the Final Solution sought to efficiently transport Jews out of European ghettos along railroad lines and into death camps, with timing so precise the victims were able to walk right out of the boxcar and into a waiting gas chamber, the coordination was so complex a task, this too called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer
existed.

However, another invention did exist: the IBM punch card and card sorting system — a precursor to the computer. IBM, primarily through its German subsidiary, made Hitler’s program of Jewish destruction a technologic mission the company pursued with chilling success.

Every day, transports of slave laborers were received. Prisoners were identified by descriptive Hollerith cards, each with columns and punched holes detailing nationality, date of birth, marital status, number of children, reason for incarceration, physical characteristics, and work skills. Sixteen code categories of prisoners were listed in columns 3 and 4, depending upon the hole position: hole 3 signified homosexual, hole 9 for anti-social, hole 12 for Gypsy. Hole 8 designated a Jew.

When Hitler rose to power, German intellect descended into madness. The Nazi movement was not merely a throng of hooligans pelting windows and screaming slogans. Guiding the Brown Shirts and exhorting the masses was an elite coterie of pseudo-scientists, corrupted professionals, and profit-blinded industrialists. Nazi jurists, medical doctors, and a clique of scientists — each with their prestigious academic credentials — found ways to pervert their science and higher calling to advance the cause of Aryan domination and racial persecution.

From the very first moments and continuing throughout the twelve-year existence of the Third Reich, IBM placed its technology at the disposal of Hitler’s program of Jewish destruction and territorial domination. IBM did not invent Germany’s anti-Semitism, but when it volunteered solutions, the company virtually braided with Nazism. Like any technologic evolution, each new solution powered a new level of sinister expectation and cruel capability.

During the frenetic rush to expand business with the Nazis and automate more and more Reich projects, never once was a word of restraint uttered by Watson about Dehomag’s indispensable activities in support of Jewish persecution. No brakes. No cautions.

Washington awarded IBM an on-going contract so substantial it permanently boosted IBM into a corporate class of itsown. Watson’s people boasted that Social Security was “the biggest accounting operation of all time.” Actually, it was the second biggest. The dress rehearsal had already taken place in Germany in 1933. It will never be known whether the collator was invented in Germany or the United States, or as a collaborative effort of IBM’s cross-Atlantic development programs. But shortly after it appeared in the United States, the collator also appeared in Dehomag’s inventory. … As a result of massive American taxpayer-funded research, more people-managing punch card capabilities than ever before would be available to the Hitler regime.

… Hitler would bestow upon Thomas Watson a medal — the highest it could confer on any non-German. The Merit Cross of the German Eagle with Star was created for Thomas Watson to “honor foreign nationals who made themselves deserving of the German Reich.”

Watson sermonized to his followers after one trip to Germany, adding “If you do not agree with everything he does, cooperate with him in the things you do believe in. Others will cooperate with him in the things they believe in.” On another occasion, Watson illuminated his steeled indifference this way: “I am an American citizen. But in the IBM I am a world citizen, because we do business in 78 countries and they all look alike to me — every one of them.”

The Nazi quantification and regimentation of Jewish demographics in Warsaw and indeed all of Poland was nothing less than spectacular — an almost unbelievable feat. Savage conditions, secrecy, and lack of knowledge by the victims would forever obscure the details of exactly how the Nazis managed to tabulate the cross-referenced information on 360,000 souls within forty-eight hours.

But this much is known: The Third Reich possessed only one method of tabulating censuses: Dehomag’s Hollerith system. Moreover, IBM was in Poland, headquartered in Warsaw. In fact, the punch card print shop was just yards from the Warsaw Ghetto at Rymarska Street 6. That’s where they produced more than 20 million cards.

Within sixty days of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Watson unveiled a fully equipped 140,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, staffed by 250 employees. The first product was a 20mm anti-aircraft cannon. Eventually, Munitions Manufacturing Corporation produced approximately thirty-two different weapons and other military items… IBM logos were stamped on most of the products, including the carbine rifle butts. By 1943, eventually two-thirds of IBM’s entire factory capacity had shifted from tabulators to munitions.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Within forty-eight hours, the Bureau of the Census published its first report on Japanese Americans entitled Japanese Population of the United States, Its Territories and Possessions. … Using IBM applications, the Census Bureau had tracked the racial ancestry of Japanese Americans based on their responses to the 1940 census. Census Director J. C. Capt confirmed, “we didn’t wait for the [American] declaration of war [which was proclaimed Monday afternoon, December 8]. On Monday morning, we put our people to work on the Japanese thing.” Since only 135,430 Japanese Americans lived in the United States, the results were tabulated quickly. A single sort was necessary: race. …

If locating the Japanese by census block was insufficient, the Census Bureau was willing to take the next step to deliver actual names and addresses. “We’re by law required to keep confidential information by individuals,” Census Director Capt declared at the time. He added, “But in the end [i]f the defense authorities found 200 Japs missing and they wanted the names of the Japs in that area, I would give them further means of checking individuals.”

In some camps, such as Dachau and Storkow, as many as two dozen IBM sorters, tabulators, and printers were installed.

Zentral Institut‘s elaborate Hollerith banks at Block F, 129 Friedrich-strasse were expensive Dehomag systems. But the SS could more than justify the cost because slave labor was sold by the SS Economics Administration and managed as a profit center. Enterprises as large as the heavy industries of I.G. Farben, as delicate sa Hotel Glasstuben, and as small as a local business, routinely contracted for slave labor with Department DII, which governed all slave labor assignments. For instance, in late July 1942, farmer Adam Bar of
Wurzelbrunn, short on farmhands for his beet fields, applied to DII for two farm slaves from Flossenburg.

World War II finally ended in Europe on May 8, 1945. Almost immediately, IBM rushed in to recover its machines and bank accounts from enemy territory. … there was no realm where IBM would not trade, and none where they failed to collect — country by country.

The IBM Brussels executive [Belge Watson] declared: “It is none of our business to judge the reasons why an American corporation should or would help a foreign Government, and consequently Mr. Decker and myself have left these considerations entirely out of our line of thought … we were, as IBM men, interested in the technical side of the application of our machines.”

Every bloodstain and barracks blueprint in the camps was examined, catalogued, and probed. Machines such as Dachau’s D11-A, inspected by Chauncey, and those at Auschwitz, Buchenweld, Westerbork, and at the Warsaw Ghetto, were simply recovered and reabsorbed into the IBM asset list. They would be deployed another day, another way, for another client. No answers or explanations would be provided. Questions about Hitler’s Holleriths were never even raised.

Title: A Guide to the Japanese Stage
Author: Ronald Cavaye, Paul Griffith, Akihiko Senda
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

In preparation for an interview with my shamisen teacher on women in Kabuki, I have started reading a number of books on Japanese theater.

I only read the chapters relating to Kabuki (the first 100 pages and the 40-page synopses of Kabuki and Bunraku), but the overview was clear and enjoyable. A decent beginner’s guide to the history and interpretation of Kabuki.

Title: Willpower – Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
Author: Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

This book arrived with perfect timing. I read it immediately after finishing the Good in Gardena concert, when my willpower was decidedly low. Willpower explains the current research on the topic and explores the role of willpower in day-to-day shopping, dieting, etc. The concept that most resonated with me was that we have a single pool of willpower from which we draw for any task. This is certainly how I feel with regards to taiko practice. If I spend most of my willpower on other difficult tasks in the morning, I find I lose the ability to push myself in personal practice. Willpower makes it easy to understand why this is the case, and even provides concrete suggestions for improving and maintaining willpower.

The book was a great read for getting me back on track after a big, exhausting project. Recommended!

Title: Knocking on Heaven’s Door
Author: Lisa Randall
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

Lisa Randall is highly regarded as a physicist who can clearly explain science in general, as well as the technical details of our current search for the Higgs boson and dark matter. Knocking on Heaven’s Door covers the full range, but for me, the former was more successful than the latter. Although I checked out the book with the intention of better understanding the current research at LHC, I found these explanations the weakest of the book. My understanding was often frustrated by undefined technical terminology. Randall’s take on the importance of science and its role in society, however, were very interesting. Her explanation of the construction of the LHC was my favorite part of the book.

Although it didn’t leave me with a dramatically clearer understanding of the topic, theoretical physics is one of my favorite topics and Knocking on Heaven’s Door was an enjoyable read.

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