Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Intelligence-Priming Reading List

Neil de Grasse Tyson answered a recent post on Reddit that asked which books the whole world should read. printed his list here.

Tyson’s reading list is as follows:

1.) The Bible (eBook) - “to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.”

2.) The System of the World by Isaac Newton (eBook) – “to learn that the universe is a knowable place.”

3.) On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (eBookAudio Book) - “to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth.”

4.) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (eBookAudio Book) – “to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos.”

5.) The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (eBookAudio Book) – “to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world.”

6.) The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (eBookAudio Book) - “to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself.”

7.) The Art of War by Sun Tsu (eBookAudio Book) - “to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art.”

8.) The Prince by Machiavelli (eBookAudio Book) - “to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it.”

I like the list a lot, but I think the commentary could use some tweaking. The Bible, for example, is far too complicated a work of literature to be summarily dismissed as a mind control tool, even though he’s right in observing that’s how it gets used more often than not.

The Wealth of Nations, for another instance, is a more fully  developed continuation of Smith’s earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which deals much more fundamentally with the ethical and moral construction of modern industrial commerce than the later book does, which is one reason it’s less widely studied in business schools.

Similarly, Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War as a primer in how to defeat an opponent in any contest of power. Its principles apply to the political and commercial realms as well as to the battlefield.

Lastly, The Prince is widely thought of as an instruction manual for achieving and maintaining power, but there’s a school of thought that says Niccolo Machiavelli intended it to be a sarcastic screed against the machinations of the great houses of Europe.

Anyway, Paine, Darwin, and Newton are the three on this list I still need to actually read over a weekend. How about you?

BBW 2012: Brave New World

In my experience, no one uses the word “utopian” correctly. The incorrect way is to do so in a hyperbolic sense rather than the literal one. For example, those who say that our tax system could use some progressive tweaking are being utopian. Not true, as the tax system gets tweaked all the time. The offenders intentionally misuse the word in order to halt the discussion.

Utopia comes from a pair of Greek words: ou, or ‘no’, and topos, or ‘place’. Utopia, therefore means ‘no place’.  A perfect society is a logical and moral construct rather than an expression of reality, so it can’t exist. We don’t even really want to live there. We just like to dream about it.

Dystopia is the rhetorical opposite of Utopia.  In this case the stem dys (also from Greek) means ‘bad’, so ‘bad place.’ Except in this sense, it’s a place as bad as we can imagine. That’s easy–work a shift in a Foxconn factory for a few weeks. Get yourself a cup and beg in the slums of Calcutta for a while. I guarantee a life lesson or two.

I sometimes tell my students that I think calling Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World dystopian is unfair. That gets a discussion going pretty quickly, as the allure of utopian societies remains subject to opinion. One writer’s paradise is another writer’s hell. There are elements of both extremes in this story, but the book isn’t usually taught that way in classrooms.

First a few historical bits. Brave New World is #52 on the ALA’s list of most frequently banned books. It’s been banned for its politics (communism, socialism) and for the sexual content (pornography). As far back as 1932 the book was being challenged for its language and for supposedly being anti-family and anti-religion. In 1980 it was removed from a classroom in Miller, Missouri, and in 1993 an unsuccessful attempt was made to remove it from California readings lists due to its “negative activity.”

The year is 2540 (or 632 A.F. –After Ford–as it’s known locally). In terms of physicality, it’s not that different from the world we see around us now.  No flying cities (there are personal helicopters), no teleport booths. But . . . all aspects of human behavior and physiology have been standardized. People are cloned in factories, raised to specifications in education centers, and every aspect of their lives is predetermined by a centrally planned state. Society is completely managed, but the level of stimulus-response training people receive as they grow up avoids the need to micro-manage the population. Once grown, people are sent into careers of the government’s choice based on economic need and they live out their lives. They wake up, go to jobs, do their work, eat, sleep, and take a hangover-proof wonder drug called soma when they need a break from reality.

And that’s it. Literally, that’s all there is to this world. There are no new discoveries about the universe or insights about people themselves. No sexual hangups, no real problems other than deciding how to entertain oneself. No real skills except for those needed to do one’s job. No parents, no children, no psychological trauma. No emotions, which means no drama, so no comedy or tragedy. No illness. It’s a well managed world where where everyone is perfectly average. Everyone is happy, healthy, and productive literally until they day they die.  The world is homeostatic.

So . . . what’s not to like?

Quite a lot, actually. For example, the happiness that is considered normal here is more like a self-reinforcing apathy. No one has any real worries about work because jobs are there, waiting for every human being who emerges from the education centers. Famine and disease are unknown. Personal relationships as we understand them don’t really exist. Death is inevitable, but the lack of connection between people makes grieving unnecessary. Monogamy is considered a social disease, and wanting to be alone is thought pathological. Sex is cheap and soma use is mandatory, at least, at certain times of the month. (A state pseudo-religion which glorifies sex and soma allows co-workers to bond and blow off steam on Friday nights.)

We learn about this world by watching Bernard Marx (Huxley named every character after a real life fascist or communist), a state-employed psychologist, run through the matrix as it were on his way toward what he thinks are laudable goals. Understanding how society operates curses him to awareness of just how low in the pecking order he is; he craves status, sex, and authority. Bernard is the physical and mental antithesis of what people expect: he’s short, smarmy, socially inept, and thinks much too much. He is a loser. And that’s what makes him wonderfully human, but that comes at the end of the book.

He pursues a co-worker, Lenina, who likes him well enough but no more than her other male partners. Bernard figures his chances with her will improve if they go on vacation together, but his idea of a vacation is a visit to a “savage reservation” in North America. When they arrive, they ooh and aah at the natives, but they get a surprise. They meet a young man named John who is the son of a civilized woman who was herself stranded there decades ago.  Lenina is utterly fascinated by John, while Bernard plans to use him to bolster his career.

They bring John “home”. Things get worse when Bernard’s supervisor threatens to send him to an island, i.e., banish him to the equivalent of a leper colony in the North Sea. Things get horrible when Bernard exposes his supervisor as John’s father, which to civilized morals is so freakish that the gentleman resigns in disgrace and the matter is literally never mentioned again.

Bernard shows John around the equivalent of high society and gets his status (and Lenina for a while), then mishandles it rather badly when he mistakes his new admirers for friends. John’s mother dies in hospital, and John handles it badly. John stops co-operating with Bernard. Barnard handles it even more ineptly. Mustafah Mond, the World Controller of West Europe, finally takes an interest in the savage’s integration into civilization, and things end badly for everyone.

Or do they?

John and Bernard have a lot in common: neither belongs in civilized company, and both try to use the other to access what they want (status for Bernard, Lenina for John). Both exacerbate their own misery and make the people around them miserable in turn. Square pegs jammed into round holes tend to do that.

One of the more absorbing aspects of this novel is the fact that the protagonists are the State’s failed subjects. Think about it.  Bernard is responsible for maintaining paradise but is physically and mentally ill-suited to living in it. Lenina’s perfect man is one that was born outside civilized society. John wants no more than to be accepted by the tribe of natives he was born into, and is rejected out of hand due to his foreign origin. Even Mustafah Mond, the Guy In Charge of Western Europe,  began his career in social control by being too smart for his own good. The fact that he was offered an out by going into politics was a fluke. Had things really worked properly, he should have been banished decades ago.

There are holes in the plot. Giant holes that you could drive a UPS truck through. One is John’s exposure to the English language by way of an old Shakespeare collection his mother just happened to be stranded with way back when. There is no way that John could have learned his absorbing command of the bard just by reading it. For that matter, his mother is described as a twit, and the idea that she’d have any book in her bag when they arrived is not exactly credible. As Neil Postman noted in Amused to Death, Orwell feared the banning of books, where Huxley feared a lack of respect for and interest in them. The only books we ever see live in Mustafah Monnd’s office safe.

Another problem (and one that Huxley acknowledges in the introduction) is the either/or nature of the world as presented in the text. There is civilization and there is savagery, but there’s no in-between. Neither universe informs or acknowledges the other. We’re told that the islands are numerous enough to house the total sum of all social misfits but we don’t get to see what life there is like. We’re told by Mond that an entire society of elites was sent to an island to carve out what life they could and have to take his word that the situation imploded rather quickly.

There are similarities to our here and now, too. Economics is the reason given for everything that happens in BNW. The economy isn’t everything–it’s the only thing. A person’s entire meaning in this world is the sum total value they can add to the machinery of commerce. His labor feeds it, his money lubricates its guts, his leaders direct it. In Huxley’s world, the economy is purely mechanical. All humans are its servants, one way or another.  Worse, there is no place on Earth to get away from it. Our current political discourse, where the lower orders are placed in the position of defending their right to eat at every turn, differs from the reality of BNW in degree only.

So. Are we there yet? Well, yes and no. The book assumes that all the wacky assumptions of utopian science fiction–unlimited energy, resources, and perfect balance with nature–have already been achieved, in defiance of history and the laws of physics. Since new inventions that don’t directly serve consumption are illegal–you will be banished if you try to pursue what Mond calls “real science”–it’s expected that there’s no new information about the world or the universe is being discovered, either.  Material concerns reign supreme. Clone people, give them jobs, feed them, extract their labor, convert the dead to fertilizer for crops, repeat as necessary. The modern idea of economic growth has no place in a world that depends on homeostasis. I doubt we’ll go there.

On the other hand, in the respect that iron-clad social control is maintained by a central authority standardizing human behavior for the sake of the wheels of commerce, you can argue the details all you like, but I think we’ve been there for at least 50 years.

Warren Mosler: The Economy is Just Bits in a Computer

When I was in the final stages of getting my BA from Queens College I took a class on essay writing. Not exactly surprising as I was an English major and necessarily took a bunch of writing classes. One assignment was to respond to an article in a popular magazine. I chose an article from BusinessWeek which reported on an article published in a national economics journal which supposedly proved that American students were abandoning classes in the hard sciences for classes in the Humanities (English in particular) due to rampant grade inflation. In other words, students who loved science loved easy grades even more.

I called bullshit.

I thought, awesome, I can respond to this in my sleep, and I pretty much did. I found the original article in the QC library and realized that the research only showed that the grade inflation had been a constant over the past 20 years. They failed to show that the enrollment of students in English classes had increased by a similar proportion to the decrease of enrollments in the hard sciences.* As far as I could tell, they never attempted to demonstrate either of those relationships. The guys at BusinessWeek merely had column space to fill and to do so, they basically made stuff up with the point of making Economics sound more authoritative than, say, English Lit.

Two valuable lessons here: first, English is not a science**, although it is a valuable discipline. Lesson two: Economics is in exactly the same boat, although I question its value. In my experience, Economics is more about method than result and the math rarely works as advertised.

You don't have to take my word on that; take Warren Mosler's instead.

Mosler is a self-taught economist with an extensive background in investing and teaching. He eschews complexity and thinks modern economics is so much nonsense while recognizing that modern finance is almost purely extractive in nature. Most importantly, he thinks that our ideas about economics are mired in sixty year old assumptions about debt, taxes, and spending, and our public policy is driven entirely be ideology. He thinks we can do better, so he wrote a book titled The Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy to explain how. Better still, the book is free and available as a PDF on his web site. There is no excuse not to read it.

In simplest terms, Mosler thinks that modern economic policy is a garbage-in-garbage-out affair. Our assumptions about how things work are wrong and so we come up with fixes that are politically pleasing, but which cannot possibly work. His years working on Wall Street taught him at the operational level how things do work, and to him the disconnect between fact and policy couldn't be more clear.

Mosler's precepts take his knowledge of operational finance (aka, accounting) and applies them to the structure of the economy as is exists in the twenty-first century. Computers handle everything, and they use proven standards of book keeping: debits on the left, credits on the right. All transactions must be recorded in a pair of matching entries. Everything must balance out in the end. Simple.

Most importantly, he says, our insistence of thinking in terms of stuff–cash, gold, and physical notes–has blinded us to the truth that money is now entirely electronic. Bits in a computer, numbers on a screen. Debt is imaginary and the main difference between taxation and spending is in whose bank accounts the transfers appear. Changing policy is no more complicated than swapping out entries in computers.

Anyway, Mosler's seven deadly frauds–the stuff that he says everyone gets wrong–are as follows:

1. The government must raise funds through taxation or borrowing in order to spend. In other words, government spending is limited by its ability to tax or borrow.

Bushwah, says Mosler. Taxation is merely how the government regulates aggregate demand. As such, taxation should increase during good times and decrease in bad times.

2. With government deficits, we are leaving our debt burden to our children.

 Nonsense, he says. In the collective sense no such burden can exist. Debt or not, our children will consume as much or as little as they produce.

3. Government budget deficits take away savings.

 Not true, Mosler tell us. Federal government budget deficits actually add to savings.

4. Social Security is broken.

 No, it's not. Mosler says. Federal government checks do not bounce–they never have and they never will.

5. The trade deficit is an unsustainable imbalance that takes away jobs and output.

Incorrect, is the response. "Imports are real benefits and exports are real costs. Trade deficits directly improve our standard of living. Jobs are lost because taxes are too high for a given level of government spending, not because of imports."

6. We need savings to provide the funds for investment.

 Balderdash, says Mosler. Investment adds to savings.

7. It’s a bad thing that higher deficits today mean higher taxes tomorrow.

Madness, says Mosler: this is really a good thing. Taxes reduce aggregate demand, and if taxation increases it's because the economy is about to blow the roof off.

  I'm the first to admit that although I like the way Mosler thinks, I'm not entirely on board with his proposed policy solutions.

His first proposed fix is a "payroll tax holiday" where employers and employees would be exempt from paying the payroll tax for an undetermined length of time. In Mosler's description this would be a situation "whereby the U.S. Treasury makes all FICA, Medicare and other federal payroll tax deductions for all employees and employers." In other words the government would be borrowing these funds for its own use.

It makes a certain amount of sense, and it would give everyone getting a W-2 form a substantial (on the order of 8%) pay raise. Hell, it'd give employers the same raise. Unfortunately, there's no indication that this would increase hiring: increases in revenue is what does that, not a decrease in tax rates.

His second idea, that of a $500 per capita revenue sharing plan from the federal government to each state government, I like very much. Unfortunately, his thinking is too small: 500 dollars for three hundred million Americans still averages out to only three billion dollars per state. Yes, I comprehend that New York, with 20 million people would get ten billion dollars while New Mexico, with only two million would get one billion. That's not the point. The point is that Mosler is thinking way too small in this plan. The states taken together have something on the order of trillions of dollars of infrastructure repairs and delayed maintenance that need to be done; power plants, roads, bridges, waterways, sewers, etc. 150 billion won't come close to making a dent in that, although it might scratch the paint. But if everything is really just bookkeeping, then Mosler has no reason not to blow up the numbers to match the need. Make it  ten or  twenty trillion dollars and we'd have something to look twice at.

There's a great deal more to consider. Mosler is very much into a national jobs program and universal government supplied health care. Children should be considered investments rather than expenses in financial terms. He believes that there is such a thing as public purpose and economic policy needs to be restructured to reflect that fact. (All the stuff that the talking heads on Fox love.)

There's plenty to argue with as well. Classical Kenesians won't think much of this work, and libertarians will like it even less. That said, I've read enough policy proposals from both crowds to understand that new thinking isn't exactly their strong suit.

What I do like about this tome is the fact it's different. There's no ideology to defend. There's no insistence that we somehow live in the same world (or even the same structured economy) we had in 1945. There is a tacit acknowledgement that our current system is broken and the only way we can to begin to fix it is to admit that fact to ourselves.

There are only debits and credits, bits in a computer.

Happy Labor Day.


*If X number of students had abandoned the hard sciences in favor of English, you'd expect a proportional increase in the latter and decrease in the former as the lure of easy A's enticed physics students to change their majors.

**Science: a rigorously self-regulating model of discovery wherein hypotheses are created through observation of events and tested through experimentation. Repeated results are considered valid. Unique results are not. Economics rarely provides this level of rigor in the pursuit of knowledge. It's a discipline, not a science.

Bill Moyers and the Memory Hole

If you've spent any time here at all then you've probably figured out that I'm a complete and utter Bill Moyers freak. So that's one reason that I decided to link to this keynote he delivered to the 2011 History Makers convention. The bit that hit me hardest was this:

George Orwell had warned six decades ago that the corrosion of language goes hand in hand with the corruption of democracy. If he were around today, he would remind us that "like the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket," this kind of propaganda engenders a "protective stupidity" almost impossible for facts to penetrate.

But you, my colleagues, can't give up. If you do, there's no chance any public memory of everyday truths – the tangible, touchable, palpable realities so vital to democracy – will survive. We would be left to the mercy of the agitated amnesiacs who "make" their own reality, as one of them boasted at the time America invaded Iraq, in order to maintain their hold on the public mind and the levers of power. You will remember that in Orwell's novel "1984," Big Brother banishes history to the memory hole, where inconvenient facts simply disappear. Control of the present rests on obliteration of the past. The figure of O'Brien, who is the personification of Big Brother, says to the protagonist, Winston Smith: "We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves." And they do. The bureaucrats in the Ministry of Truth destroy the records of the past and publish new versions. These in turn are superseded by yet more revisions. Why? Because people without memory are at the mercy of the powers that be; there is nothing against which to measure what they are told today. History is obliterated.

The thrust of Moyers' speech is that facts matter. Events matter. People, places and dates matter. Information and data matter. They can be twisted, turned, framed, or forgotten, but they still matter. They matter because they are real. They fly in the face of politics. Politics hates reality.

One reason why we're here, why we decided on librarianship as a career rather than say, accounting (other than the fact that not all of us are good with numbers) is that memory hole. Librarians hate that memory hole every bit as much as politics hates reality. Librarians are guardians of the stacks and the ideas contained within the volumes that populate those stacks. Yes, we're keeping the books and full text journals and e-Books and God knows what else warm for our patrons, but there's something else going on here.

A book exists. It contains content, therefore knowledge. Granted, that knowledge was filtered through a human being, and probably a great number of them if the book was the product of a publishing committee, as is often the case with reference books. It has value to the author, therefore a similar value to the reader is implied.

Orwell understood how the memory hole operates. It's not a small effort; in fact it takes an entire department of the Ministry of Truth to keep it active. If you want to wipe out an idea, you need to find the book/novel/article that articulated it; round up and destroy all copies in print; erase all electronic versions of it on all hard drives, e-readers, etc. everywhere; then you need a team of people who are able to track down every single reference to the contents of the source in question and wipe it out, or at least rewrite it such that it points to a reference that changes the meaning of the article.

Or, as Moyers says, you can just distract people and encourage them not to learn anything, ever. Science says that's the simpler objective, so it's the one that the real Powers That Be utilize.

Let's not help them succeed.

An Open Letter to Steve Elliot of Follow-up

Dear Steve,

Thank you for your speedy response to my previous letter. I am thrilled to hear that things are going so well for your organization. I notice with some concern that your histrionic tone hasn't changed much, but clearly you are very excited about your prospects for success re: The Death of ObamaCare. I like a man who stands by his goals.

From the Desk of:
Steve Elliott, President, Alliance

         After clicking on the link below to watch John Stossel's
         special 20/20 report exposing the truth about ObamaCare,
         take a few additional moments to add your name to our
         national petition:

I clicked the link (which appears five times in this e-mail; that seems excessive to me, but that's a personal preference rather than a comment on your letter writing abilities) and watched the clip. I do not think it says what you think it says. 

John Stossel did not, as you put it, expose "the truth about ObamaCare." He did not even mention "ObamaCare"–that is your term, not his. The only time he even refers to Obama is a five second clip where the president is speaking to an audience, suggesting that it might be a good idea if all Americans had access to basic health services. Beyond that, Stossel spends all of his time trashing the Canadian health care system, with a (dis)honorable mention of the British National Health Service, which apparently doesn't have enough dentists to go around. 

That's all well and good. But it doesn't apply to what's going on in the United States at this point in time. Show me anything in the health care proposals being discussed now that attempts to swap our current health care mess for Canada's (or England's) and I'll forward the clip to as many people as I can think of. Otherwise, Stossel is comparing apples and oranges and you are making a leap of faith when you predict that any change in the status quo will produce Canada's health care system.

Anyway, to the bulk of your letter:


A reinvigorated Obama is preparing for his grand sales pitch to
Congress and America on Wednesday night where it is expected he
will throw down the gloves and demand citizens fall in line!

Not citizens so much as congresspeople (who, I admit, are also citizens), but God, I hope so. It would be the first real sign of balls he's shown in a while. He needs to (as Maureen Dowd put it) "let Bartlet be Bartlet," not make nice with the freaks at the extremes.

Well Americans aren't falling in line. In fact, citizens by the
hundreds are flocking to sign our petition saying no to
ObamaCare every hour!

Hundreds? Every hour? That's . . . well, that's nice. Not really jaw-dropping, but a good effort. I think most of the folks who wanted to sign your petition have already done so. Maybe you could borrow Dick Armey's FreedomWorks mailing list. They should be receptive to this kind of knee-jerk logic.

         Jonathan, I noticed you haven't yet signed this
         important petition opposing government-run health care,
         and wanted to give you one last chance to do so before
         our historic delivery on 9/12.

I'm not going to sign. I'm morally obligated not to sign. I'd sign it if it denounced the current situation in favor of, say government regulated health care, which is where Matt Miller thinks this should go. But government-run health care is Medicare, which my mother and in-laws have, and Medicaid, which my godson has. Why do you want to kill my parents and kid?  (And you should watch your text blocking.)

         But before you sign, take a moment to watch an
         incredible video by ABC News' John Stossel about
         what likely awaits us should ObamaCare become
         a reality.

Click here to see the video:

I clicked. I saw. I responded. Let's move on.

++ 45,000 Petitions Needed For Friday Delivery!

That's 15,000 signatures per day for three days. Possible, but I don't think you're getting to half a million by then.

Regardless of Obama's antics on Wednesday evening, Grassfire
team-members will be delivering petitions REJECTING OBAMACARE
to EVERY Senator on Capitol Hill on Friday–
letting each one know that Americans aren't falling in line.

Good to hear! But I cringe at your selection of the word "antics" in this passage. There's a lot to unpack there. A lot of minstrel imagery, especially. But you are busy and so am I, so let's just call this another dangerous foray into the realm of racism and leave it at that.

Already more than 95 team members have registered to deliver
petitions–ensuring this will be a historic event!

It's an historic event, but who's counting grammatical errors? Just out of curiosity, which states are the hold outs? Wouldn't telling us where the holes are be instrumental to filling them?

But we are 45,000 petitions shy from reaching our goal of
half-a-million petitions, and we need your help over the
next 24 hours.

No, you are 45,000 signatures away from creating a single petition to be hand-delivered to 95 (hopefully 100) senators tonight. Right? Or are we e-mailing our individual petitions to our own congresspeople? But if we're doing that then which document are the 500,000 signatures going to reside upon? Really, you must slow down, this is becoming confusing.

Click here to have your petition opposing ObamaCare delivered
to your Senator this Friday:

        We only have about a 24 hour window to reach our goal,
        so after signing, forward this important message to 30-40
        friends urging them to watch the video and sign our petition
        in time for Friday's delivery by clicking here:

I have given you my requirements for signing and/or forwarding your e-mails in my previous letter. There's no need to repeat them here. By the way, how are you verifying the e-mail addresses and names people respond to these e-mails with? Just curious.

This is our last chance to reach our goal of half-a-million
petitions before the 9/12 event on Capitol Hill, and I want
to mark the events of that day with an exclam
ation point

I wish your event well. Say Hi to Beck from me. Tell him not to cry this time, it makes him look like a pussy. His lunatic shrieking on the phone was much more enjoyable. I'd like more of that, please. If you could arrange it, I'd be grateful.

Thank you for taking immediate action with Grassfire!

Steve Elliott, President

No, Steve, thank you.


Jonathan Frater

P.S: After signing our petition, make it a personal priority to
forward this message to 30-40 friends. Urge them to watch the
Stossel video and sign our petition by clicking here:


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