Digital hoarding

I sometimes feel that I have the online equivalent of people who just shop to have stuff. I have an archive of articles I need to read – print to PDF just to be sure – if I had not deleted hundreds of hours, I would have podcasts to fill this year and the next.

I download Linux ISOs and feel I should keep them because someone may drop by who would need the latest Opensuse, Fedora, Slackware, Arch, Frugalware et cetera.

I find Youtube videos – documentaries, shows and movies I want to watch. I download them just to be sure.

If I focused entirely on all the stuff I have pulled down and have stored, I would be occupied for a month.

I was considering getting a new hard drive – my latest Thinkpad came with the 60 gig drive that was the default when it was new.  It may just be a good idea that I do not.

The buck drops here: free and Free culture

I was watching Network, a movie that was released (unleashed?) into the world the same year I was.
I have heard it mentioned quite often in the context of critical journalism and rising tension because of an an anaemic and malnourishing production by popular culture. It is a very strong movie when it comes to pointing out the inertia of established media megacorps that will keep running despite the mold-to-gold ratio going from 1:20 to 20:1.

Anyone who has seen my podcast list will know that I consume quite a lot of audio for the price of zero. But I would like to debate this price and whether all parameters are taken into account when applying the market forces to the formula.

And, of course, with this page being what it is, I will also tell you what I think is awesome.

Being a Danish citizen, I pay a national TV license. This covers access to the national TV channels, radio – access by internet included.
Now: Danish Radio is an interesting beast in itself – as I suppose all national broadcasting services are, a mash of history, traditions, transitions and rumor; as is common, it was the only TV channel offered here for a long time, and it had a hard time trying to renew itself. In a play upon the abbreviation, DR was referred to as Dampradioen (the steampowered radio). This impression seems to linger, but DR has made a great effort towards being a modern system – offering a number of digital TV channels with a strong range of programs – and on the radio side, the shows are released as an impressive array of MP3 podcasts with RSS feeds. I am quite pleased with that. I also find it appealing that we, the Danish people, this language minority, pay for the creation of these things and make them available to everyone who understands the language.

Elsewhere in the cultural spectrum we find the other TV channels, for which I pay considerably more. The international channels that provide us with evil crap like Survivor shows, talent shows, cheap sitcoms and the like. To get access to these channels to see movies, we have paid a substantial sum. So I have changed the default subscription that came with my apartment and now pay a quarter of what I used to, cutting around $50 off that bill.
I find that there is a tendency for me to lose interest in TV, to be honest. Perhaps it is just because the children leave me with few hours to spare, and I need something that lets me do other things as well. TV requires a lot of attention, if it is going to be worthwhile.
As I mentioned in my audiobooks article, I had started listening to audiobooks back when we had the dog. As I also mentioned there: I encourage that you donate to these people who give you all these good things for free. As I said, I have changed my subscription service, because they were feeding me crap. I do not intend to spend less – I intend to spend it right! So what I want to do is give some donations to the people providing me with hours and hours of enlightening entertainment. I also want to encourage you to do the same.

Okay, so – into the meat of the story, as they say. As those who know me and this site will know, I am into science, technology, literature and international politics. This focus makes for quite a spectrum, I know. I will start with what I assume will be of more general interest.

To The Best Of Our Knowledge (website, RSS feed) is the first great example. Okay: If you are a quick-fix infojunkie, these are too long – every episode is an hour – but if you are willing and able to listen, it will be a great reward. There are two shows, one centered around culture and more current events, another of a more philosophical nature. They did an excellent Alan Turing episode, a genuinely brilliant feature on the apocalypse with a discussion spanning from the Mayan calendar over a discussion of the cold war to a great interview with Slavoj Žižek. Another great one was an anniversary feature on the life and work of Marshall McLuhan. These are just a few examples of this show getting into culture, education, politics; the show is extremely well done, and it will suck many hours from the life of a podcast addict if you start going through the archives…
Compared to other shows, this one is a somewhat – if not somber, then certainly serious show, But it is solid and intelligent, and never disappointed with anything but the realisation that it is actually hard to find time to listen to them all.
Donations can be made on the Donate page.

Radio Litopia (website, RSS feed) is the next recommendation. This extremely intelligent literary podcast can only be recommended.
It is actually several shows. The primary one is Litopia After Dark, hosted by literary agent Peter Cox. The show covers news in writing, literature and the publishing world – and is rather entertainiFreang. Another show is The Debriefer, in which lawyer and writer Donna Ballman addresses current legal issues in the publishing industry as well as emerging trends in media and copyright. Between The Lines is an interview show in which Peter Cox talks to authors about their background and their works. Open House is a show where listeners and writers who participate in the site forums, the Litopia Colony, can call in and talk, along with a number of word games – intelligent and highly entertaining. Finally, on a more serious note (despite the name) – The Naked Book, a show hosted by Philip Jones, the deputy editor of the magazine The Bookseller. This goes into challenges of the bookpublishing industry – e-books and DRM, selfpub, agency model, the future of bookstores and the like. Interesting for those interested.
All in all, it is fair to say that these shows are intelligent, entertaining and insightful. Their discussions, both serious and humorous, are something I always enjoy listening to.
Instructions for making donations can be found on the Litopia Donate page.

Freakonomics Radio (website, RSS feed) is a podcast which came as a spinoff of the book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Their tagline is ‘exploring the hidden side of everything’, which means that they usually go into some sort of economic or consumption theme which, on the outside, seems to make little sense or to react differently than you would expect, but when explored makes more sense. A recent episode named The Cobra Effect refers to what happens when you make a prize scheme for fighting pests or problems, and people react soundly with the opposite result. The title refers to a concept in Delhi, where people were rewarded for killing cobras and bringing them in. The results were that people actually started breeding cobras – they actually speak of cobra farms – and when the plan ended, there were actually no change to that population at all. A good episode was on conspicuous conservation – a trend where personal consumption is used mostly to brand oneself; they measure the significantly higher popularity of the highly recognizable Toyota Prius compared to other hybrid cars end mention a trend in certain areas of putting solar cells on the roof on the side of the house facing the street – not because it is the sunniest side, but because it is visible!
As with all of the WNYC productions, it is extremely polished. Like Radiolab, the show weaves interview with commentary. The hosts are intelligent, educated and definitely worth listening to. The shows vary in length – some are shorter and are fit in as a component of the show Marketplace.
You can support this and the other WNYC shows by donating on the WNYC donation page.

StarTalk Radio (website, RSS feed)  As mentioned in the opening of this article, there is an incredible amount of extremely cheap crap sold extremely expensively in this world. Pop in every sense of the word.
I believe then increasing disgust with this means is the reason for the trend of the rockstar scientists. I suppose that this is not exactly new, but in recent years there has been an increasing focus on a number of high-profile scientists. The most famous example would probably be Stephen Hawking, in part because of his unique situation as someone who has overcome a severely challenging physical situation to become one of the leading scientists in the world. Carl Sagan is famous for his television shows, Richard Feynman for his lectures on physics, Bill Nye as a broad science communicator.
Interestingly, I was unaware of a lot of these people until I came across the Symphony of Science, which managed to convey some very strong feelings about scientific discovery.
One of the most charismatic scientists would be astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. After I first became aware of him, he seems to turn up everywhere! Frankly, I sometimes wonder how he manages to get any work done when he turns up on talk shows, debates, news. And I recently came across Star Talk Radio.
Star Talk Radio is a good combination of entertainment and an introduction to topics on space exploration. Dr. Tyson will take in experts and discuss subjects like sending humans into space, black holes, cataloging the stars and similar topics. Occasionally he will invite actors – he interviewed Morgan Freeman on his TV show on space, Whoopi Goldberg on science interest and recently Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton on the science of Star Trek and the reason they got interested in space.
It is a lively show, and the host is eager to share his broad knowledge. As he is quoted in the Symphony of Science, sometimes you hear scientific discoveries that make you want to go out and shake people in the streets and yell “Have you heard this!?”

Work in progress.

‘casts in the description queue:

Stuff you should know podcasts
Skeptically Speaking
Radiolab
On The Media
Critical Wit

Broken Sea – a fanfic site

 A new addition to my original audiobook article, I would like to mention Broken Sea.

This site is dedicated to fan fiction, the genre where the author sets the story in an established universe. An example of this is A Different Point of View, a serialised audiobook from the viewpoint of a Star Wars stormtrooper.
This is a contested issue from time to time because of the copyright issues, but here we have Broken Sea, a site apparently dedicated to a wide range of fan fiction.
I have not listened to all of it, for several reasons. First, there is an insane amount of audio, they have really been hugely productive. But also, the authors set some of the stories on the background of shows I have never heard of. An example is Logan’s Run, a show a lot people have said good things about, but I have no idea…
What I can say is that I have listened to the Dr. Who show, and that is very well done. While I only really got into the Tom Baker version of the Doctor, I liked the show, and this audio show certainly fits well in that atmosphere.
Another show I caught was Gaia, a show set in the Star Trek universe. Of course, one would expect to find Trekkies on a site like this… the show is well-written and well-performed, and I find that the characters are quite balanced and interestingly diverse. Gaia is a zoo ship working as a sort of ark to prevent ecological disaster wiping out the Earth species, a situation the Earth has recently been recovering from.
While I have not had time to listen to the others yet, I noted Battlestar GalacticaX-filesTwilight Zone and Planet of the Apes. Already with this list – about half of the shows – I would have enough audio to last me for a very long time,  even if I took a break from podcasts.

Audiobooks – a beginner selection

Part of the point of this website – though it may not be as obvious as it was at the beginning – is to discuss literature.
While I have recently had my books on the Russian Liberation Movement returned to me, making this an obvious topic for a future article, there is another thing I have been thinking about doing a feature on.

I started listening to audiobooks when I had a dog. This may seem a curious result, but our dog Pushkin (every literary reference intended) got me walking ten miles a day, and it gets old… at the time I was listening to podcasts like Lugradio and Linux Reality, and Chess Griffin did a Linux Reality episode where he mentioned podiobooks – serialized audiobooks.. I listened to a couple of them – 7th Son by J. C. Hutchins and the outstanding and extremely creepy sci-fi horror story Crescent by Phil Rossi – and have been doing it ever since.
When I was a teenager, I briefly looked into audiobooks and… hated them. At the time, I was entirely unable to deal with the fact that they ran at a pace different from my reading speed. Also, I suspect that this was because the people reading the audiobooks were talking… very… slowly… and… without… variation…
So that wasn’t a winner.. But it has changed. Partly because a book like Crescent has good effects and a narrative style that will keep my attention.

I get the impression that people are getting more into it, along with the popularity of podcasts. I actually see audiobook CDs in the stores nowadays, a sure sign of the time. I suspect this is partially because nearly everyone has an audio player available these days. Even a fairly cheap phone like my Elm has a decent MP3 player and 2 Gigs of storage built in.

But where to start? Well, I have a solid selection. I’ll show you.

Detective stories

From the thriller-plus-entertainment department: Black Jack Justice is a classic hard-boiled, banter-centric series of episodes, where each episode is a finished story.
Jack and his girl detective sidekick Trixie Dixon and a gallery of entertainingly stereotypical characters work their way their way through their cases, aided and obstructed by cops and crooks alike. If you are into old sleuth movies, you will want to listen to these.
Also, they are a good introduction to audiobooks, because they are finished segments, well-read and with good effects.

Though other themes are involved here – but genre mix is probably the case with independent publication more often than mainstream –  Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword is another detective novel set in Chicago in the thirties. Billibub is a dwarf warrior magically transported from his own Tolkien-style universe, ending up in Chicago. After getting his bearings, he starts his own detective agency. The story is a curious mash-up of Billibub’s reflections mixed in with experience from his old world – as in battle axes and elvish ladies – but Tee Morris also manages to wrangle a real detective novel out of it.
The story is published as a podiobook, i.e. a series of recorded chapters.

Sci-Fi and variations

Jake Bible’s Dead Mech is a potent action-packed sci-fi horror novel. The population has been decimated by a zombie infestation. As a result, soldiers go out in giant mechs to fight the zombies, and with good results; however, when a pilot dies in his mech, you suddenly have a zombie mech… and that’s a different story.
If you can’t stand blood and gore, don’t consider this one. If you don’t mind and can take the soldier jargon, this one is for you. You certainly won’t be bored.

It is hard to get around published and bestselling Scott Sigler (more of him in this article) when talking about audio- and particularly Podiobooks. I would actually recommend listening to all of it, but a good place to start is Earthcore. He is tough and talented.

One of the most well-known and appreciated audiobooks ever must be the 7th Son books by J. C. Hutchins. After the assassination of the US president, a group of people with very different backgrounds are captured and brought together, and it is revealed to them that they are actually clones – that their childhood memories are not actually their own, but belonging to the original person, John Alpha, from whom they are cloned – and who has now gone rogue. He is behind the murder of the president and with plans for considerably worse acts.

Christof Laputka brings The Leviathan Chronicles, an elaborate story centering around  a young woman who discovers that she is in fact descendant of an woman who was the first of a group of immortal humans. Fractions of these immortals wage war on each other, while a government agency is also trying to eradicate them.
This serialized audiobook is an extremely polished product with professional voice acting, production and sound effects.

Action/Thriller

Mark Yoshimoto Nemcoff won a Parsec Award – the award of excellence in the field of audiobooks/Podiobooks – for his high-paced thriller Number One with a Bullet. In this story, retired hitman Johnny Dane is drawn into a contest setting the world’s best assassins against each other with a group of very wealthy men betting on the outcome.
Nemcoff tells the story with great voices and ever-changing pace.
Update May 2013: Nemcoff has taken these books off of Podiobooks, and I can not seem to find the audiobook anymore. Still, his website links to a selection of his audiobooks. Do consider them – he is a strong action writer.

In his podiobook 65 Below, Basil Sands takes us to Alaska. Retired Marine Marcus Orlando Johnson is confronted with a complex plot for a terrorist plan to unleash an extremely potent biological weapon.
A well-told story with good characters. While this is my favorite Basil Sands book, consider also listening to his Faithful Warrior.
Update September 2012: Basil Sands has taken these books off of Podiobooks, which makes them less free, but not less good, and you would have made a donation anyway, right? The books are available for purchase from basilsands.com.

From a more scientific angle, Bill DeSmedt brings us Singularity, a thriller based on the premise that the Tunguska meteor impact was in fact a tiny black hole now orbiting inside the Earth. There is even a sort of scientific companion to the book explaining the physics. An intelligent read working from an interesting hypothesis.

Horror

I have to say, I would never have expected an audiobook to be scary. I also have to say that Crescent by Phil Rossi had my skin crawling. I often listen to these books while doing something else, but this one had me stopping to listen. The story takes place on Crescent Station. This is a story in space, but there are bad things even there, lurking in the night, wanting to chew on your flesh…
There are good… as in effective… effects in this story. Don’t listen to this if you have a heart condition, but if you like a good horror story, go for this one.

In the same family, but from a different angle, is Where Evil Grows by S. Lawrence Parrish. This is more of a young adult type of serialized novel; it deals with a group of teenagers with their kind of issues – along with a more sinister presence growing at the school. It is somewhat reminiscent of It by Stephen King or Summer of Night by Dan Simmons. It is a solid piece – not chilling like Crescent, but well told and catchy.

Steampunk

Only one recommendation for this category, but a strong one. The Gearheart by Alex White introduces the Seekers, a mysterious order merging mechanics and magic. There is spying and deceit, there are mechanical beings, there are intricate mechanical devices kept running by magical glyphs signed by magician mechanics. Very pure steampunk. Certain things – particularly the order of the Seekers – reminded me of the universe portrayed in the incredibly immersive (and addictive, if it is your thing) video game series Thief.
It is worth taking a look at the interview with Alex White at The Traveler’s Steampunk Blog. He has done the voices – an impressive array of distinctive voices – with his wife, and he has composed and played the featured music himself.
Note that there is also a sequel, Maiden Flight of the Avenger; I recommend listening to The Gearheart first.

Fantasy

Now, I am really not a Fantasy guy. I read the Dragonlance books and Ravenloft and loved them, but apart from that, writers trying to become the next Tolkien who invent their own languages so it all sounds like Celtic Klingons with Old Norse cousins… hard for me.
However, I will recommend two books.
The first, Murder at Avedon Hill by P. G. Holyfield, is a very solid tale – it is like a fantasy version of Name of the Rose: An intelligent monk and his apprentice investigate the death of a local woman employed at the local manor. Secrets and magic. It is well-written and well-told.

Second, The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker – also a fantasy crime novel of sorts. A female police officer is tasked with going undercover to stop the assassin threatening the life of the emperor. Magical beings, murder and political intrigue make this story interesting.

Unholy mix

As it may be clear, it is a bit of a challenge to find a category for Underwood and Flinch. While the book has aspects of a horror story – it revolves around a family – Flinch – of servants  to an ancient vampire, Underwood. So, just to make it easier on you: It is a horror-thriller with a solid dose of comedy.

Fan fiction

A new addition to the original article, I would like to mention Broken Sea.
This site is dedicated to fan fiction, the genre where the author sets the story in an established universe. An example of this is A Different Point of View, a serialised audiobook from the viewpoint of a Star Wars stormtrooper.
This is a contested issue from time to time because of the copyright issues, but here we have Broken Sea, a site apparently dedicated to a wide range of fan fiction.
I have not listened to all of it, for several reasons. First, there is an insane amount of audio, they have really been hugely productive. But also, the authors set some of the stories on the background of shows I have never heard of. An example is Logan’s Run, a show a lot people have said good things about, but I have no idea…
What I can say is that I have listened to the Dr. Who show, and that is very well done. While I only really got into the Tom Baker version of the Doctor, I liked the show, and this audio show certainly fits well in that atmosphere.
Another show I caught was Gaia, a show set in the Star Trek universe. Of course, one would expect to find Trekkies on a site like this… the show is well-written and well-performed, and I find that the characters are quite balanced and interestingly diverse. Gaia is a zoo ship working as a sort of ark to prevent ecological disaster wiping out the Earth species, a situation the Earth has recently been recovering from.
While I have not had time to listen to the others yet, I noted Battlestar Galactica, X-files, Twilight Zone and Planet of the Apes. Already with this list – about half of the shows – I would have enough audio to last me for a very long time,  even if I took a break from podcasts.
I will update this section when I have listened to more of the shows.

I should not neglect to say: These deeply talented people have made these stories available to us. Consider giving them a contribution. Most of them have versions of their works for sale, sometimes in print, sometimes ebooks, sometimes higher-quality recordings.

The unrespecting gentleman

I feel it is in its place to comment on the Open Respect initiative by Jono Bacon, because I believe that Jono has all the right intentions – but there are some concepts in this which are problematic.
The essence of Open Respect is to encourage an exchange of ideas and opinions in, to quote, a respectful manner.

First, Jono’s statement:

  • Respect is not judging people based upon their genetic or social attributes, but instead the quality and content of their discourse.
  • Respect is not just civility in communication, but also respecting other people for making their own choices, even if you disagree with them.
  • Respect is sharing opinions so a mutual understanding of principles is understood, but then giving others the freedom to pursue their own paths without fear of persecution by those who have made different decisions or have different definitions of freedom and openness.
  • Respect is engaging in honest, open and polite debate with the goal of enriching each others perspectives, not for the purpose of proving each wrong.
  • Respect is understanding that others often pour their heart and souls into their work, and being sensitive of this emotional connection to their work, particularly in times of critique

Source: OpenRespect.org

Now, the issue he is addressing here and in a previous blog post is as old as debate itself, but is perhaps – probably – aggravated by the internet troll mentality, the online literary equivalent of road rage; some issues simply inflame people. Many reasons for this, and I could discuss that as well and get flamed to a crisp.
Part of what makes this particular initiative problematic is that respect is actually ambiguous, as is made clear in the responses to his blogpost. An example of this is a comment by Fab, known by listeners of the Linux Outlaws podcast; Fab comments that in his view, respect is something you earn. And I dare say that when Jono uses the term, he talks about respectful behavior in the sense of politeness. What he does not address is the fact that people who do not have a civil tone in a debate, online or personally, simply do not respect the person they talk to. As in, they feel a personal disrespect for the person they are debating with.

Frankly, I hear a lot of voices on the net – people I simply do not have any respect for. People I think are wrong in their interpretations, naïve in their views and repulsive in their morals. But what is that to me? It is, of course, the dilemma of a gentleman that one of the most uncivilized things to do is telling people they are impolite.

When there is a debate, criticizing people has nothing to do with respect, and I find it clutters things to bring that up. I write this piece to say that Jono is going about this the wrong way – partly because I believe such an initiative is futile, whatever the intentions, partly because I find his choice of title unfortunate – but at the same time, I have a personal respect for Jono for the work with Lugradio and for doing his Severed Fifth project to draw some conclusions about the strength of Creative Commons and the community around his music. And so, a critique would be the decent thing to do, because that is part of the debate.

It is, of course, a question of basic decency. It is a question of addressing a debate in a civilized fashion. I would want to do so to people I hold in great esteem, and I would want to do so with people in whom I find little to respect. In the end, it is a question of respect – for yourself. And one would do well to consider when a debate is actually needed; often enough, these debates can look like the unstoppable heading towards the immovable with no sort of agreement on the horizon except, in the very best of cases, agreeing to disagree.

And why do I find the futile? Consider a sign beside a trashcan saying “Please put trash in the trashcan”. My old workplace was always cluttered with such signs until I tore them all down. Those who will be civilized about it will be civilized about it – is a sign going to make any difference to the others? I feel that Jono has made a digital signpost trying to ask people not to be unpleasant. The results are predictable.

Nathan Lowell: The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper

Dear Nathan Lowell,

I just listened again to your Golden Age of the Solar Clipper books – Quarter Share, Half Share, Full Share, Double Share and Captain’s Share.

Although they are no longer new to me, they still grab me as great stories; the life of Ishmael Wang from the death of his mother, setting out as a sailor in space and up until his becoming a captain is quite the epic tale.
Though it takes place in space, the references to seafaring and the parallels to stories like Forester’s Hornblower books make Ishmael’s story fit into a genre with a proud history.

It is inspirational in the sense that Ishmael’s desire to bring out the best in everyone and to encourage everyone to seek their full potential makes for developments in the story – and which everyone can take to heart. Your frequent emphasis on the kind of ideas which aren’t complex but which people just never thought of should make any reader and listener look closer at their situation and surroundings before accepting the situation as it is. This comes out very well in the sections where he deals with trading, and when he advances, how he seeks to acommodate the crew. It is also a good idea to emphasize the way people’s complaints don’t always echo their problems.

So, to make a long story short(er), I am writing to thank you for these well-written books; and since I got to know them as audiobooks from Podiobooks.com – particularly inspired by the mentions on the Linux Reality Podcast and your interview with Chess Griffin – I should also say that you have an excellent storytelling voice.
Your last two books were chosen as Founders’ Choice on Podiobooks, and I noted you were a finalist last year at the Parsec Awards with Double Share – and once again nominated with Captain’s Share. I wish you all the best with that, and although the submissions have you up against authors like Phil Rossi with both Harvey and Eden, Alex White with the very interesting The Gearheart and a fresh make of Hutchins’ 7th Son: Descent, you are a strong candidate to take this one home.

The only story I didn’t yet get back to this time was your spin-off story South Coast. It has yet to get on my audio player – but it is going in there.

Yours,

Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

A mix of genres today, though that may be what you have come to expect around here; part literature, part science.

Lately, I have been reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, the autobiography of the physicist Richard P. Feynman – in the sense Feynman told the stories, and Ralph Leighton wrote them down. This book has been on our shelves for quite some time, as I gave it as a Christmas present to my wife a couple of years ago along with a biography on Albert Einstein (did I mention that our son recognizes Albert Einstein?). The dog ate the Einstein biography (true story), but spared Mr. Feynman.

There are a couple of themes that keep recurring. Curiosity is one – Feynman’s desire to explore the world is this incredible hunger that puts him in the most peculiar situations. I resist the temptation to list all of the examples, because part of what makes the book interesting is the way you can never really tell where it goes next. I will say this, though: He seems to apply a scientific method to the world around him. The very first chapter tells about young Richard falling in love with fixing radios. His enthusiasm is apparent from the first paragraph of the book:

When I was about eleven or twelve I set up a lab in my house. It consisted of an old wooden packing box that I put shelves in.

He goes on to telling about how he would set up a lamp bank in his laboratory, playing with bulbs in serial or parallel connection and making switch systems.

Also, from the start, Feynman is quite a trickster and almost gets into trouble. His electrical experiments set off a small fire in the house, which he manages to hide from the parents. He discovers that his radio will pick up a radio channel with a show all the children listen to – an hour before they usually listen to it! And he will join them afterwards to make clever comments about what next to expect in the plot… and the first thing he describes from his time at MIT is stealing a door and hiding it; later, he finds out how to open the safes at Los Alamos to demonstrate their inadequate security – an amusing parallel to how Steven Levy describes in his classic book Hackers the later practice at MIT of picking the locks because everyone should have access to information, and a computer shouldn’t stand around without being used – and of course, the similarity is that it is not just a practical consideration, but also a brain game. A challenge that, once encountered, can only be met and resolved accordingly.

He describes a difficult youth. Even when he gets older, he has his problems with women. At MIT, he puts great thought into the right way to just walk past the girls. And, of course, the physical awkwardness that seems associated with the natural sciences – often discarded as prejudice, and yet repeatedly confirmed – is summed up in a side comment on sports:

I was never any good in sports. I was always terrified if a tennis ball would come over the fence and land near me, because I never could get it across the fence-it usually went about a radian off of where it was supposed to go.

This actually makes for an interesting contrast and again, a good reason for reading this book: In most of what Feynman comments on in the book, he is confident bordering on (and sometimes beyond) cocky, but he is also extremely honest about his weaknesses and fears as a human being, which makes the book a very personal and charming read. As he describes how he conquers his challenges, he mixes some rare insights with a human story. He does get married, but his first wife dies from tuberculosis in 1945 while he is working at Los Alamos, and this chapter is very personal. He marries a second time in 1952.

This honesty is a recurring feature as well. He descibes being in Brazil to teach, and he encounters an interesting phenomenon: That the students on the face of it seem to know the curriculum completely, that the questions they are asked are answered in full – but when he starts asking them questions with scenarios, it turns out that they do not know the answers; and he discovers that they memorise everything without actually understanding it! And that is how they perceive learning. Of course, he tries to promote the inquisitive mind, genuine curiosity and debate about the topics, but it turns out that each student is so deeply trained in never admitting doubts, confusion or mistakes that the idea of a study group is discarded beforehand.
Feynman spends a lot of time on this, and he never fails to stress that it is his curiosity, his need to understand, that has brought him far and will bring him further – and being honest about what he doesn’t understand, and what is not yet understood in general, is a necessary part of that.

For the same reasons, he comes across as rather harsh when he is asked to be on the board reviewing schoolbooks. Not only does it very soon become clear that the other reviewers are barely skimming the books in question before giving their recommendation, it is also clear that the books are of an appalling quality and completely unfit for, you guessed it: Stimulating curiosity and creativity. He also rages against the politics of it: When one of the publishers offering the books at an earlier date, another does the same – and at a reduced rate! So, Feynman concludes, it seems that when you push the timeframe, the books become cheaper as well!

There is one interesting point where it is clear that Feynman is a product of his time. I have already mentioned Los Alamos, so perhaps you know – he participated in research for the army during the 2nd World War and cold war that followed – and actively encouraged his fellow scientists to do the same. As a result, he takes part in the research in nuclear weapons as a patriotic duty and is present at the nuclear detonation of the Manhattan project. While his personal opinion seems to go a bit back and forth on this, this biography contributes an interesting personal portrait of people like Oppenheimer who were involved in this research, and whom history has not only been kind to. There is also an interesting description of the clash of cultures between the army way and the academic approach.

Feynman’s curiosity is expressed in a different form – namely, his eagerness to examine other areas. In Princeton, he visits classes of other fields like biology and philosophy. In a series of discussions with a friend, an artist, he concludes that their lack of agreement is based on the fact that the artist does not know science, and he himself does not know art. So he sets out to learn drawing – and learns it with the help of his friend, and also painting – and suddenly he has a small business on the side selling paintings!
His interest in music also comes across – he learns to play drums quite well during his time in Brazil and gets to play with local bands; this also earns him some interesting friendships over time after he comes back to the States. In the time before he goes to Brazil, he learns Portugese, and spending some time in Japan, he learns some Japanese. Confronted with the riddle of Mayan hieroglyphs, he goes into deciphering an archeological find, a Mayan calendar.

I could say that Richard Feynman eventually ends up winning the Nobel Prize, but that would not be fair. While he certainly finds the discoveries that earn him the prize important and fascinating, the prize is of less interest to him and does cause him to get more attention than he wants and, one might say, the wrong kind of attention: The attention you get because you are a Nobel Prize laureate, not because you are an interesting or otherwise relevant person. As you will see, this rubbed against his view of the world.

This book was first published in 1985, a few years before his death in February 1988, and in the time after his death, what I find about him is mostly his literature, the materials he has written for teaching and, indeed, popularizing physics, and he is said to have been especially proud of being awarded the Oersted Medal for notable contributions to the teaching of physics.

The book is partly educational for the scientific content, the historical description of how certain discoveries came about, interesting portraits of great scientists – and partly a human story of an occasionally very shy and occasionally very extroverted, but always inquisitive person.

Bibliographic references are available from the Open Library page on this book.

Allison Hoover Bartlett: The man who loved books too much

An interesting item this time: The man who loved books too much by Allison Hoover Bartlett.

This book is not something I would usually have picked up, and I did in fact buy it thinking it would be something else. Whereas I was expecting a thriller, it is actually more of a documentary on the book collection industry.

It is the story of a book thief, Charles Gilkey. The author tells the story of the hunt for Charles Gilkey and the man who has caught him, Ken Sanders.
Besides the obvious – the hunt for a criminal – what makes the book interesting is the fact that Mrs. Bartlett does extensive interviews over time with Gilkey, Sanders and others in the book collecting business. This yields some interesting insights.
For one thing, Gilkey is not actually a reader, and this seems to be the case with a lot of the book collectors. He is much more interested in owning the objects, much as one would want a sculpture or a painting. And of course, since the value of these items is huge, one would never actually touch them. Several of the book collectors interviewed in the book talk about having their collection and reading books… but of course, not reading the collection books, for they are for safekeeping.

Ken Sanders is elected the security chair of ABAA, Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. In this capacity, he receives and distributes warnings about scammers and thieves. Selling collectors’ items in this business would be as complicated as unloading a stolen race horse or the Mona Lisa, if not for the fact that the booksellers seem to be extremely private with their information, and a lot of Sanders’ efforts go into lobbying the business to share their experiences about the people ripping them off.
Interestingly, Sanders comments on the fact that it is a challenge to make the police take this kind of crime seriously, even if the value of the first edition of a classic can get extremely high.

Gilkey’s personality adds a lot of flavor to the story. A man with a well-behaved and cultured appearance, he manages to cheat the booksellers out of works of a considerable value. A little way into the story, he is caught, imprisoned, released – and goes back to stealing books again! Over time as the author talks to Gilkey, he seems increasingly insistent that life owes him. Whenever he is arrested, put in prison or just slowed down by events, he feels that life owes him another success. And so, he goes at it again.

It seems clear that Allison Hoover Bartlett start out trying to find out how this collectors’ mentality actually works; and while going into this, she not only comes across some fascinatingly bizarre/bizarrely fascinating personalities, but also gets into the business in such a way that she can’t help exploring it more deeply. The book is a spinoff of an award-winning magazine article, which she decided to expand upon.

Sometimes I feel a poor book critic for insisting on writing about books that I like. I have, in fact, finished a lot of books that I don’t like – with a few exceptions (yes, Jean Auel, I am looking at you here). I am the kind of reader who keeps going, because a lot of books start out slowly and gradually gain speed or the author feels that the right approach is to (very) gradually home in on the main theme, and if that takes the first 100 pages, well, so be it. What this also sometimes means is that you will keep going, hoping for more… and keep going… and hoping… and the book ends. So be it. But I can’t be bothered to write about those, in part because it depresses me, and in part because there is no reason to emphasize the negative when I can just as well praise those who deserve it.
And so, to make a long story short(er): I rather like this book. I am sure that the ‘I’ form will annoy a lot of readers deeply, as recently discussed on the Litopia podcast – an author interviewing people, gathering the puzzle pieces of a story and then telling them from a first-person perspective, talking about the characters, but also about her own reactions: Fascination, doubt, frustration and just that little bit of collectors’ mania, which all the people she interviews have.
I quite like her personal approach, and I recommend the book to those who have accumulated a lot of books as readers and are just a little bit curious about the darker side of collecting.

Bibliographic references are available from the Open Library page on this book.

The Russian Liberation Movement

The Russian liberation movement/The Russian liberation army (Русское Освободительное Движение/Русская Освободительная Армия) was a group of Soviet soldiers who fought on the side of Nazi Germany during World War II.
This is fairly well-documented. The interpretation, however, is not. The following is an entry I wrote for Citizendium – which was, of course, immediately criticised as an interpretation and debate material rather than an encyclopedia entry – and of course there was a request for documentation, leading into yet another discussion about original research – and I could hardly to my Danish BA thesis for documentation.
Anyway you slice it, there is certainly a place for it here.

Declared foundation of the Russian liberation movement:
Proponent angle

A large group of Soviet soldiers wanted to fight for the liberation of Russia or the nations of the Soviet Union from the existing system lead by Iosif Stalin.
An opportunity to achieve this goal was presented with the German invasion. In June 1942, leaflets encouraging Soviet soldiers to lay down their arms and welcome Adolf Hitler as the liberator were dropped at the front and in the areas being occupied. As a counter-move, the Soviet leadership attempted to paint a picture of the German as an evil enemy – the Germans, who were allies a short time ago. As Soviet citizens were accustomed to reading between the lines in the official statements, this campaign made little impression on the population. Part of the Soviet soldiers and civilians had had contact with Germans in the 1st World War and could not match their personal impression with the one offered in official publications.
Also, this alliance gone sour produced another alliance with the former (and later) arch enemies Great Britain and USA. This strengthened the impression that the priorities of the Soviet leadership were not in reality what they were officially.
And so, there was an interest in an alliance with the German state. This because it was impossible to imagine that it could be the intention of German leadership to conquer and continually occupy all of the Soviet Union, due to its massive size – not to mention the experience with the Russian geography done by Napoleon. Ergo, it would be in the interest of Nazi Germany to cooperate with a group interested in creating an alliance, in which the Soviet Union – or Russia, depending on which interest group was consulted – would exist as a democratic republic – or, as some suggested, a monarchy again – which would be a supportive military and trade ally of Germany.
Germany was seen as a nation with positive associations, because it was part of a European traditionally shared cultural community. It also had a certain effect that it was a practising Christian society, as opposed to the Soviet Union, in which the state had made a substantial and rather heavy-handed effort to eliminate religious practice.
The figurehead of the movement was Lieutenant General Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov, a decorated war hero, who had made his way up through the ranks of the Red Army, based on merit. In the autobiography of one of the leaders of the Southern Front, responsible for the defence of Kiev – and later General Secretary Nikika S. Khrushchev, Vlasov is mentioned as an able commander.
After the defeat of his 2nd Shock Army in the summer of 1942, Vlasov is captured by German forces. He offers to fight in an established Russian liberation army.
While working on this, he stresses some good things with the Soviet system as opposed to Imperial Russia, but he also stresses that which is unacceptable in the new system – that the system is not, what it is pretending to be. The German army responded positively to the idea, but postponed taking full advantage of it due to the scepticism of the political leadership, based on ideological issues. Vlasov was allowed to travel to POW camps and occupied areas, where he presented his cause – which was popular, and the soldiers already active in the Wehrmacht, albeit not as part of a common coordinated force, started wearing the ROA insignia, as they saw themselves as part of a shared cause – a liberation army.

The Soviet official position:
Critical angle

A minor group of Soviet citizens cooperated with the German occupation force. The collaborators were either former prisoners of war or soldiers and civilians, who changed sides during the war.
Having surrendered to the invaders, the prisoners of war were already counted as traitors by Soviet definition, as these were considered people, who were not willing to make an effort and sacrifice to defend their country – who had let themselves get surrounded on the battlefield and taken the easy way out by surrendering instead of fighting to the end. Volunteering for the liberation movement after capture demonstrates their weakness, either by making the choice based on threats of physical abuse, or allowing themselves to be bribed with pay, food and relative freedom.
The soldiers and civilians, who changed sides, were perceived as cowards and opportunists in the same fashion, as people willing to sacrifice the future of their homeland to be on the (apparently) winning side, where it was possible to gain something for oneself. It was seen as typical for the kind of people who are weak and deceitful by nature – or as a variation of this, people who had lost land, fortune and privileges with the people’s revolution, well-off families and large-scale farmers (kulaki), who had no interest in the preservation of the Soviet Union. Vlasov had allowed the defeat of the 2nd Shock Army and surrendered to the German army in order to live comfortably and benefit. He, too, was a chameleon, who made his alliances, where he found a winning side. Upon capture, he let the Wehrmacht use him as a propaganda marionet, partly to weaken the moral of the soldiers of the Red Army, partly to keep the prisoners of war passive and partly to recruit troops, that could be used for various purposes of use to the Wehrmacht. This treason was compounded by the establishment of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia (KONR), where he not only let his German masters lead him, but actively took control in the campaign against his homeland.
The assumptions about Vlasov are confirmed by the circumstances around his capture by Soviet soldiers; he was captured on the way to the American sector, where he was found to be in possession of a large amount of money. This is interpreted as meaning that he had gained what he could and was searching for a new winning master – yet another capitalist state, which the USSR had allied with temporarily, but which should be treated with caution. During the final trial in 1946, he admitted to having lost heart, that he was offended by his country, and admitted to his treason. So, when he and his inner circle were hanged, they got the punishment which was to be expected and deserved for traitors of such a caliber.

References

There is a lot of material on the topic – as you may suspect from the view expressed above, it is a challenge to find balanced material on this.
I have found the following two to be the most comprehensive:

  • Catherine Andreyev: Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement Soviet Reality and Emigré Theories. Cambridge Russian, Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies, 1990. (Openlibrary entry)
  • Joachim Hoffmann: Wlassow gegen Stalin. Die Tragödie der Russischen Befreiungsarmee 1944/45. Herbig, 2003. (OpenLibrary entry)

There are also interesting memoirs:

  • Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt: Against Stalin and Hitler. Memoir of the Russian Liberation Movement 1941-5. Translation by David Footman. London: Macmillan, 1970. (OpenLibrary entry).
    Translated from: Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt: Gegen Stalin und Hitler. General Wlassow und die russische Freiheitsbewegung. 2. Aufl. 1970. (OpenLibrary entry)
    On Strik-Strikfeldt’s experiences as an interpreter for the German army, ending up as a contact officer between the German leadership and Vlasov and his group.
  • Артемьев В.П.: Первая дивизия РОА. London: Издательство Союза Борьбы за Освобождение Народов России (СБОНР), 1974.
    About the activity of the 1st KONR division, which Artem’iev was in.
  • Казанцев А. С.: Третья Сила. История одной попытки. Изд. Посев. Frankfurt-am-Main, 1974.
    Mr. Kazantsev was a journalist and writer who was with the press department of the Russian liberation movement.

Also, a couple of additional articles of interest:

  • Катусев А. Ф., Оппоков В. Г.: Иуды (Власовцы на службе у фашизма). Военно-Исторический Журнал 6/1990, p. 68-81. Москва: Изд-во “Красная Звезда”, 1990.
    About the trial and motives of the KONR leadership.
  • Кринько Е. Ф.: Коллаборационизм в СССР в годы Великой Отечественной Войны и его изучение в российской историографии. Вопросы Истории 11/2004, Moscow. P. 153-164