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Monday, January 28, 2013

Errol Morris, “A Wilderness of Error”: Provocative but Unpersuasive «

Errol Morris, “A Wilderness of Error”: Provocative but Unpersuasive «

The final word???

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The Constitution And Chief Justice Marshall

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Constitution And Chief Justice Marshall:

I suspect this book will appeal mostly to Supreme Court junkies like myself. More than half the book consists of the opinions in cases Swindler has decided are essential to understanding Marshall's extraordinary role in shaping the way we view the Constitution and the development of our legal system.

As I learned from the Jeffersonian Crisis, the newly elected Republicans were all in a twitter with Federalist judges and they were eager to remove as many of them as possible. Marshall the the last Federalist judge to be appointed to the court for fifty years. All of the rest were of Republican persuasion (eventually Democrats.) It was a deliberate attempt to alter the political philosophy of the Marshall Court which had been distinctly nationalist. It didn't work very well as Joseph Story (a favorite of Justice Scalia's ironically) and a nominal Republican proceeded to join Marshall's nationalistic nucleus and writing opinions which were to form the basis for McCullough v Maryland, the case which established the supremacy of the federal government over the states with regard to national economic interest.

It was Jackson who fought the battle against the Second Bank of the United States. His chief agent in the battle was Roger Taney, later to become Chief Justice and decide the disastrous Dred Scott decision. Marshall and his court ruled that the establishment of a national bank was constitutional under the "necessary and proper" clause and it was thus unconstitutional for Maryland to tax notes issued by the United States.

The current battle over the power and scope of the commerce clause (the Constitutional gives Congress supreme authority over economic transactions of an interstate nature -- the conflict is over whether anything these days can be truly considered intrastate and this clause was to provide the foundation for the dismantling of segregated public facilities) has its origins in Gibbons v Ogden in which the Marshall court again increased the dominance of the federal government in a case regarding steamboat franchises.

Tragically, Aaron Burr was caught up in the battle between Marshall and Jefferson with Jefferson venting his wrath on Burr this time as well. Jefferson had placed Burr in charge of the impeachment hearings of Samuel Chase which, much to Jefferson's regret, Burr presided over with "ferocious impartiality." Burr's trial for treason was further hindered when John Marshall turned up as the Circuit Judge in Burr's case. (Burr had resigned from the vice-presidency and begun preparations for a military expedition which was either treasonous or patriotic depending on your point of view -- shades of Oliver North, that weasel.) Marshall and Jefferson were soon locked in a battle over executive privilege when Burr demanded to see documents in the president's possession. (Ring any bells?) Their ultimate compromise meant the issue was to remain unresolved for another 150 years.

When one hears all the caterwauling about the Federal government and state's rights, etc., etc. it's important to note that 95% of all laws passed in the United States are state laws, a number that astounds my constitutional class students.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Best of Outside: The First 20 Years

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Best of Outside: The First 20 Years:

A mixed bag of essays from Outside magazine. As with most collections, the interest level and quality (purely subjective on my part) varies.

Some of the essays are just weird. I had previously read Katz's "King of the Ferret Leggers" about a sport(?) which involves seeing how long you can abide having a ferret run up you pants and chew on your testicles. "Call of the Hunt" by Jane Smiley discusses the culture of the fox hunt and her love of riding. But she questions the blood-lust of the riders.

"How is the field different from any other mob except the members are mounted? A significant portion of my subsequent education would invite and even force me to conclude that the pink coats and the high boots, the elaborate costume and ritual and language of foxhunting, the very expense of it is really the merest of respectability, designed to camouflage the mob and to allow it to reassure itself that it is far more civilized than other mobs when it is actually much worse--caught up in the irresponsible and destructive blood-lust, the object of which is not social justice or even retribution for felt wrongs, but the trivial pursuit of unworthy prey I could talk myself into class hatred here."

The essay by David Roberts, "Moments of Doubt" describes his career climbing rocks and mountains., He watched several friends die in mountaineering accidents, the most horrible of which involved Ed, a relatively novice climber who went with Roberts and several of his friends to climb in Alaska. They had successfully summited, and Ed had remarked on top that he wasn't sure the struggle was worth it. On the way down with Roberts, something happened, and Ed fell to his presumed death over a 4,000 foot drop. The body was never recovered. Now that, folks, sucks. Roberts has several periods of doubt, especially after marrying and having children, coming to the realization that his death would affect many people. Yet Roberts blithely goes on to describe the deaths of others and rather coldly, I thought, comes to the conclusion that it is all worth it. Bullshit. Nevertheless, you will keep reading his essay, wondering what horror awaits around the corner.

There's a marvelous essay, "Voyage of the Smithereens," about six friends who embark on a trip to some islands in the Caribbean on a forty-two foot sloop. Sounds marvelous, right? Except that quarters are very small and personalities undergo quite a sea-change, the best friend morphing into Captain Bligh. The bunks are tiny, and soon the roomier accommodations are being fought over. "I've even heard of expeditions hiring psychologists onto their trips to cool hot blood and bandage torn egos.[shades of Blind Descent] Still, it never occurred to me that such contentiousness would overtake this trip in this place. I felt as if I'd traveled to paradise, found a perfect conch, put the shell to my ear, and heard the sound of children arguing over a nickel." I'm sure you're all familiar with Samuel Johnson's comment about traveling at sea. "It's like being in a prison except you can drown." You would never catch me on a cruise ship since they represent just a floating continuation of your current culture, but, except for a dreadful memory of being seasick on the original Queen Elizabeth in 1958 during a super storm (I do wish I had been able to enjoy the magnificence of the gale) I would book myself on a long trip by freighter so I could wile away the hours with books and watching the crew on the bridge. (Caveat: watch the inside of this large container ship being twisted during a storm:

Continuing with the nautical, Jonathan Raban's essay is fun. He describes being on a freighter at the tail end of a hurricane, the deck moving through an arc of 75 degrees. "Bit of a windy day,” remarks the captain, the junior officers trying to smile as they walk uphill to the door of the mess. It being a British ship, s tiff upper lip was de rigueur. He reflects on the case of the Mignonette (a case that Michael Sandel discusses in his course on justice) in which after the ship foundered, four sailors and a cabin boy resorted to cannibalism, the older sailors eating the cabin boy who lost the throw of the dice. The trial when they returned to England was a sensation: they were found guilty, sentenced to hang, but then pardoned. The defense had argued there was no law in an unflagged lifeboat 1000 miles in the middle of the ocean, but the guilty verdict was necessary to hammer home the long reach of British justice. He reflects on his own voyage from Seattle to Juneau in a thirty-foot boat: "Out on the open sea with a breaking swell and the wind a notch too high for comfort, you are the loneliest fool in the world."

You can pick and choose, but the number of fascinating topics and well-written essays is well worth the price.

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Review of Port Vila Blues

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Port Vila Blues:

Wyatt is a crook. Pulling off the successful heist of a mark, one of the items in the safe, in addition to the cash he had been told about, is a very expensive and eminently traceable Tiffany brooch. That brooch was about to cause some serious problems. A gang of crooked cops had lifted the thing in an earlier heist and now they have reason to believe someone was skimming from the take.

Add Wyatt to your list of favorite crooks alongside Parker and Nolan.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Nero Wolfe: Eeny Meeny Murder Mo

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Nero Wolfe: Eeny Meeny Murder Mo:

Several of Rex Stout's earlier novellas have been reissued as Kindle Singles.  Excellent.

Archie and Nero are in rare form in this nice classic piece. The confidential secretary of a law firm shows up at the brownstone. Archie's interviews her, knowing that Nero won't be down from the orchids until later and her story, that someone in the firm is meeting with their client's adversary and that it relates to a divorce case, means that Archie has to frame her story in such a way that Nero, who refuses to have anything to do with divorce cases, will be interested. Wolfe is not, despite Archie's entreaties. Then the woman is discovered in his study, strangled with his necktie.

Well, now Wolfe is pissed.  No one kills in his house with impunity.  Classic Stout.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Dealing With Aaron Swartz in the Nixonian Tradition: | John Dean | Verdict | Legal Analysis and Commentary from Justia

Dealing With Aaron Swartz in the Nixonian Tradition: | John Dean | Verdict | Legal Analysis and Commentary from Justia:

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Article | First Things- Scalia on the death penalty

Article | First Things:

A rather interesting article in which Scalia argues that the *more* Christian a country is the *more* support there is for the death penalty and that one reason why the majority of nations in the world are now against the death penalty is that they have become more secular.  He, obviously ignoring the Vatican's position despite his rigid Catholicism, says Christians don't regard death as a big deal and therefore are more likely to apply it.

So it is no accident, I think, that the modern view that the death penalty is immoral is centered in the West. That has little to do with the fact that the West has a Christian tradition, and everything to do with the fact that the West is the home of democracy. Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is the lesslikely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post–Christian Europe, and has least support in the church–going United States. I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life, in exchange for the next? The Christian attitude is reflected in the words Robert Bolt’s play has Thomas More saying to the headsman: “Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.” And when Cranmer asks whether he is sure of that, More replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to Him.” For the nonbeliever, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence. What a horrible act!

Besides being less likely to regard death as an utterly cataclysmic punishment, the Christian is also more likely to regard punishment in general as deserved. The doctrine of free will—the ability of man to resist temptations to evil, which God will not permit beyond man’s capacity to resist—is central to the Christian doctrine of salvation and damnation, heaven and hell. The post–Freudian secularist, on the other hand, is more inclined to think that people are what their history and circumstances have made them, and there is little sense in assigning blame.

Personally, this sounds like sophistric rationalism.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

review of Indefensible: One Lawyer's Journey Into the Inferno of American Justice

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Indefensible: One Lawyer's Journey Into the Inferno of American Justice:

OK, so I like to watch all the legal shows, "Raising the Bar," "Shark," "Boston Legal," etc. David Feige was a public defender in New York and this book reflects those experiences. Something the book and all the shows have in common is that how you fare in court probably has less to do with guilt or innocence than with the internal politics and enmities of the "professionals" who run the show. I find that disheartening. Never having been in court (knock wood) I couldn't say but Feige has, and the picture painted is not pretty.

It's all about client and time management. Public defenders often have a client load of between 75 and 120 cases. ADAs have a very different perspective because they are case centered rather than client centered so they can practice a zone offense. The public defender has to be with his/her client so he might be in seven or 10 courtrooms during the day, juggling phone calls meetings, and other duties while an ADA (who probably knows nothing of the case - often an advantage for the defense) tries to handle whatever case comes up in whatever courtroom he/she (enough of this he/she stuff - if I use he, assume s/he) might have been assigned to.

The client every defense attorney has nightmares regarding is the innocent one. No one wants to defend an innocent client, yet those are the ones who mostly likely wind up going to trial. The guilty have everything to gain by accepting a plea -- pleas are the grease that keep the wheels of justice (hah!) from seizing up entirely. If an innocent person is found guilty, not an infrequent occurrence given that the deck is so heavily stacked against them, the defense attorney suffers through extraordinary self-examination, i.e., what could he have done better? What mistakes might he have made. "Defending the guilty is easy. . . The responsibility for the innocent can simply be too much. Sometimes it's better not even to wonder."

It's interesting how the system is often used by lawyers and clients to simple find a place to exist. One homeless fellow would arrange to be charged with beating out on a restaurant tab in order to plead guilty to a minor theft charge and he always insisted on not accepting a plea and getting locked up for the winter months. Everyone knew what was going on. He had no money, no place to live and the entire system conspired to put him in jail for the winter. In another case, Cassandra, suffering from multiple mental issues, unable to afford drugs that helped to stabilize her condition, unable to qualify for any program, was helped back to jail by Feige so that she could obtain some of the medications she needed.

Having a black face always means being treated differently. Big gangsters like Giotti et al strike the fancy of the media and public. The "ordinary" criminal rarely receives any kind of redemptive opportunity. "Fundamentalist Christians constantly speak passionately about seeing the possibility of redemption in everyone, and no one bats an eye. But make this same point in the secular context of the criminal justice system, and rather than praiseworthy piety it is heard as liberal gibberish."

Learning to read judges is an important skill. Many of the judges are political hacks -- "overwhelmingly white, politically connected former prosecutors, they terrorized both defendants and the lawyers who appeared before them, meting out justice that was informed more by the code of the streets than by any legislation." They have extraordinary power and many use it to bully.

The Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial. That's a joke. Those charged who have no money for bail often must spend as long as 12-15 months at Rikers Island in New York in a series of delays and motions before a trial can begin. So much for the presumption of innocence.

Of course, if you are rich, it's a whole different ball game.

An important hard-to-put-down book.

See also Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse

Friday, January 18, 2013

Past Tense

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Past Tense:

Tanner is stunned when his old friend Charle Sleet, a cop, pulls a gun in the courtroom and blasts a man on trial for sexual abuse of his daughter who is seeking damages after recovering her memory of the abuse years later. Then two others turn up dead. .

Sleet's actions are so out of character that Tanner and his friends investigate. Sleet is of no help. He pleads guilty at the arraignment (reversed by his lawyer whom he didn't want), won't speak to any of his friends, and refuses to cooperate in any way. No one has a clue why Charlie would embark on this killing spree..

This one is truly suspenseful. It leaves the reader just as much in the dark as Tanner and the reader has to piece the puzzle together along with the protagonist. The ending is a real shocker which asks just how far we might be willing to go to support a close friend. Excellent.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

The End of the Line: Romney vs. Obama: the 34 days that decided the election: Playbook 2012

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The End of the Line: Romney vs. Obama: the 34 days that decided the election: Playbook 2012:

Last in the Playbook 2012 series by Politico. They need to be read in order and are an attempt to provide some analysis of events surrounding the reelection of President Obama in 2012.

There are some nuggets that never made it into the news, or at least the news that escaped my attention. Then again, by October, I was so thoroughly saturated with 48 hour-a-day commentary and news that I was tuning it all out.

For someone with supposed administrative ability, Romney made some serious mistakes, some of them one can't help but wonder if the decisions were pushed because they profited his advisers. Political consultant Stevens, for example, made a bundle on the side because it was one of his companies that was hired to run the IT operation and to book the ads, yet they paid five times more for their ads than did the Obama campaign. The IT groups creation, "Orca," never worked the way it was supposed to.

As George W. Bush proved in 2004, a twenty-first-century campaign can recover from a flawed, polarizing front man. But it can’t bounce back from mismanagement and poor planning. And Romney’s billion-dollar effort seemed less an enterprise run by a corporate turnaround artist than a family business undermined by its founder’s misguided vision of the marketplace—in Romney’s case, the composition of the American electorate. Romney was brilliant at raising cash; sources on both sides of the race had never expected him to nearly match Obama’s cash machine dollar for dollar, but he very nearly did. Yet he didn’t quite know how to spend it and seemed to mistake micromanagement for management, getting bogged down in minor details that never came within a mile of Obama. One example would resonate with his staffers after it was all over. Following the primary, Romney instituted a point system that assigned a specific numerical value to each event—rallies, speeches, fund-raisers, and so on. The more labor-intensive the event, the more points it was assigned. Romney’s instructions to his assistant were that he was not to exceed nine hundred points on a given day, the better to manage his time. Romney would allocate his time based on the point system, but it was often time not well spent.

Obama's lack of business experience was an asset. Rather than micro-manage, he left the details to his "battle-scarred" veterans of the 2008 campaign, which, ironically, had never shut down and just kept working on fine-tuning their ground operation. The Citizens United decision that had everyone in an uproar probably helped, as did the efforts of Republicans at the state-wide level to suppress voting groups likely to vote Democratic. It mostly rallied the troops and brought more people out. (I personally thought Citizens United was the correct decision from a fee speech standpoint and that the controversy had much more to do with the message rather than the money. The Constitution makes it clear that freedom of association is a basic right and that those groups have freedom of political speech, especially. But then I believe the more speech the better. And to argue the money is not speech is ludicrous.) The way the money was spent was far more important, and the Obama decision to get out ahead of the game and begin campaigning against Romney even before he had the nomination made a huge difference.

In the end it was God voting for Obama that made the difference. Given the two Hurricanes, one making a mess of the Republican Convention schedule (and thank you Clint Eastwood) and Sandy validating the role of the federal government (not to mention Romney's earlier comments regarding the irrelevance of FEMA) and it was clear God wanted Obama to win. Challenge my logic. :)

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Bomber by Len Deighton

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Bomber:

The title of this book implies it's the story of a single British bomber crew flying over Germany during 1943. It's much more. Deighton, known for his in-depth research, has given us a very realistic portrayal of both sides, the families of the bomber crews, the German citizens and defenders. Soldiers on both sides are frustrated by awkward interpersonal relationships and comrades with differing motivations. Deighton follows the crews of several bombers, sent on night-time raid against the Ruhr. Lacking night-vision goggles the crews had to release their bombs guided by flares dropped by scout planes. On this raid, the scout plane is shot down and its flares released short of the intended target, on the innocuous little town of Altgarten — of no military significance. 

British strategy was to drop bombs in the center of cities, usually targeting more civilians than military installations and to mix in lots of incendiaries and horrible phosphorous bombs to increase the damage. The soldiers of both sides are beleaguered by insidious forces in command. On the German side, Himmel, one of the best night-fighter pilots has stolen some medical documents that expose SS medical researchers using concentration camp as human guinea pigs in freezing experiments, so the Abwehr and Sicherheitsdienst want him arrested. In Britain, Lambert has the temerity to want to be with his wife rather than play cricket for the squadron team in an important match. He's also something of a rebel and because of that is being labeled LMF (Lacking Moral Fiber), i.e., a coward. 

In the meantime, the farmers and citizens bemoan the loss of excellent farmland to huge airfields, land they know will never be returned. Neither are the citizens without flaws, as they funnel stolen and looted goods into their own pockets. 

I particularly enjoyed one exchange. August Bach, a German pilot, is returning to his base with his friend, Max, when they are held up by a convoy directed by Vichy police. 
"A Frenchman," said Max angrily. "They are a logical race. They should make good traffic police."
"Huh," said Max. "Logical. They put a knife between your ribs and spend an hour explaining the rational necessity of doing it."
"That sounds like a lot of Germans I know."
"No, a German puts a knife into your ribs and weeps a sea of regretful tears."
"August smiled. "And after the Englishman has wielded the knife? He says, 'Knife? What knife?' "

Sometimes the horror of war is brought home more vividly by almost dispassionately describing the raw facts. For example, a crew member’s chute fails to open after bailing out from his Lancaster. Falling from 16,000 feet at 120 miles per hour (his body's terminal velocity) he hits the ground in 90 seconds and makes an indentation 12 inches deep.

Neither side is favored in this work. Deighton read several hundred books in preparation and interviewed many survivors and the epilogue tells us where they are today. He focuses on the shared humanity and suffering, selflessness and heroism endemic to war. This book rivals Slaughterhouse Five and Hiroshima as a statement of the horror and stupidity of war.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Playbook 2012: Inside the Circus--Romney, Santorum and the GOP Race

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Playbook 2012: Inside the Circus--Romney, Santorum and the GOP Race:

This short Kindle Single really needs to be read in conjunction with their other Single, The End of the Line and perhaps an earlier one in their Playbook 2012 series. I avoid TV pundits and daily reportage like the plague, preferring to wait until the dust settles and writers gain a little distance to figure out exactly what happened.

I remember avidly reading all the Teddy White "Making of the President" and I've recently started Richard Ben Cramer's "What it Takes", an excellent analysis of the 1988 election. The authors of these two short works don't approach his high standard but they are quite interesting, nevertheless for their revelations and analysis.

Romney, we recently learned from one of his sons, never really wanted to be president, anyway, that he was pushed into the race by his family, although that sounds suspiciously like sour grapes. Ironically it was his business experience that may have hurt him the most, always micromanaging rather than delegating to staffers who were probably more competent at assorted tasks.

It didn't help that he had to go through the trials of the Republican primary, otherwise known as the circular firing squad.  The primary system, which biases toward the extremes of each party forced him into adopting ridiculous positions which he came to rue later even as his staff, off message as usual, portrayed him as moving back to the center after he won the nomination, especially with the Etch-a-Sketch comment which just confirmed to both left and right that Romney had no core values.  The authors treat us to lots of fun inside information about the other dysfunctional candidates like Perry and Gingrich and Bachmann, each of whom had their moment in the sun before going down ingloriously in flames. Romney's ultimate selection was perhaps inevitable, but what a bizarre trip.

One insider said, "Romney goes into each state, he’s not building a movement. Instead, he goes in, and it’s a machine. They know how to execute really well and take down another candidate and win. But what they don’t know how to do is lift up their own candidate and sell a vision, sell a movement, and get people excited about him. I think it’s troubling that the turnout is lower than in 2008. This should be the year where Republican primary voters are incredibly excited about getting rid of President Obama. Instead, it’s not been that way at all.”

As Nate Silver showed with his data analysis, Romney probably never had a chance given the demographics and Electoral College numbers.

These books are fun to read for their "real-time" reporting, but probably won't hold up particularly well as historical records.

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Groklaw - MIT's Role as Described in Aaron Swartz's October Motion to Suppress ~pj

Groklaw - MIT's Role as Described in Aaron Swartz's October Motion to Suppress ~pj:

As the tragedy unfolds.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson by Gore Vidal

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson:

If you enjoy your history with a partisan flavor and a good dose of skepticism, you will immensely enjoy Inventing A Nation, Gore Vidal's romp through early American history. Gore begins with 1786 as Washington prepares to lead the constitutional convention.

It's refreshing to go beyond the glowing myths we are fed in high school and see the great men with all their foibles, flaws that somehow make them even a little greater in my estimation. There was a lot of groping going on to find just the right mix. Democracy did not have much in the way of precedence. After the Athenian defeat by Alexander, there was really no democratic example to follow.

Ours is certainly not a democracy in the Athenian sense as Gore, in his inimitable manner makes clear: "Much of the significance of December 2000 was that the Electoral College, created to ensure that majority rule be thwarted if unacceptable to what Hamilton thought of as the proper governing elite, threw a bright spotlight on just how undemocratic our republic has become, causing one of the Supreme Court Justices (by many thought to be a visiting alien) to respond to the Gore lawyers who maintained that Florida's skewed voting machines and confused rulings by various interested courts had deprived thousands of Floridians of their vote for president. The American Constitution, said the Justice, mandibles clattering joyously, does not provide any American citizen the right to vote for president. This is absolutely true. One votes for a near-anonymous member of the Electoral College, which explains why so few Americans now bother to 'vote' for president. But then a majority don't know what the Electoral College is."

That's classic.

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What’s Inside America’s Banks? - Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger - The Atlantic

What’s Inside America’s Banks? - Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger - The Atlantic:

This should be mandatory reading.

"That’s an increasingly widespread view among the most sophisticated leaders in investing circles. Paul Singer, who runs the influential investment fund Elliott Associates, wrote to his partners this summer, “There is no major financial institution today whose financial statements provide a meaningful clue” about its risks. Arthur Levitt, the former chairman of the SEC, lamented to us in November that none of the post-2008 remedies has “significantly diminished the likelihood of financial crises.” In a recent conversation, a prominent former regulator expressed concerns about the hidden risks that banks might still be carrying, comparing the big banks to Enron.
A recent survey by Barclays Capital found that more than half of institutional investors did not trust how banks measure the riskiness of their assets. When hedge-fund managers were asked how trustworthy they find “risk weightings”—the numbers that banks use to calculate how much capital they should set aside as a safety cushion in case of a business downturn—about 60 percent of those managers answered 1 or 2 on a five-point scale, with 1 being “not trustworthy at all.” None of them gave banks a 5."

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Lessig Blog, v2 re the death of Aaron Swartz

Lessig Blog, v2: " That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you."

"For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”"

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The Program by James Swain

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Program:

Part of Swain's Jack Carpenter series --I was introduced to Swain with the excellent Valentino books-- Carpenter doesn't make an appearance until about a third into the book. The FBI agent working on the case recommends to a newly in charge agent, Rachel Vick, that she seek Carpenter's advice as one especially knowing about missing persons, abductions, and serial killers, but also as someone more interest in "justice" than in the "law."  (Ah, those wanting to make that distinction rearing their ugly torsos since, in my opinion, they should not be separate and to permit individuals to define what constitutes "justice" is dangerous, indeed.)

I have enjoyed some of Swain's other books, particularly his "grifter" series. This one, while a fast read that holds the interest, seemed wildly implausible, with a convict in virtual solitary running a serial killer on the outside who recruits to killing through the "program," which seemed to be hardly novel or unusual. And yet the implausible is intermixed with the prosaic but little actual investigation. And the Danni business.  Didn't buy it.  But the cookie business was interesting (sorry, you'll have to read the book to see how that fits in.)

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Violence Is My Business

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Violence Is My Business:

First published in 1958, the Chester Drum series, of which this is #6, represents some of the best "noir" writing of the fifties.  Chester Drum runs a D.C.  private investigation firm and he arrives at the scene of a college professor's suicide just as the man leaps from his office window, missing the fire net.  (A cliché, I know, but apparently such nets, invented in 1887, actually worked although the practical limit was said to be about six stories.  There is one firefighter who jumped into a net from the 10th floor and survived without a scratch.)  Drum had been hired by the dead man's wife to follow him and discover if he was having an affair.  Drum's associate, a newly hired member of the firm, had fallen in love with the dead man's daughter just to complicate matters.  All the typical ingredients are on display, the crooked cops, the beautiful call girl, the iconoclastic P.I., etc.
Soon, Chester is in the midst (of course he inserts himself whenever possible) of a conspiracy involving highly placed officials, some crooked cops, and a -- wait for it -- lovely hooker with a --wait for it -- heart of gold.
My sarcasm aside, it's a good story,  if a bit archaic, well told and I can see why Marlowe was popular.  I hope they bring more of his works back in Kindle form.  Not as good as Ross MacDonald, but then, who is?

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

'Scuse Me While I Kill This Guy

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of 'Scuse Me While I Kill This Guy:

We all read different kinds of books depending on mood, school, time of day, etc. Sometimes something light is required.  This series fits the bill.

Virginia (all the family members are named after cities or geographic locations) is a member of the Bombay family whose tradition and business is they are assassins.  All independently wealthy thanks to the family trust fund, each receives assignments from the "Council" made up of senior family members. Part of the family reunions, normally held every five years is to eliminate someone in the family who has failed some assignment and to initiate children just turning five into their new responsibilities.  Each member develops a specialty: " Poison was my specialty. Everyone in the family had a favorite way of killing people, even though we were required to cross-train. With my brother, it was asphyxiation and/or strangulation. And while I should probably worry about that, it made us a good team because we both liked to make each job resemble death by natural cause. Of course, occasionally we ran out of time and had to leave the scene of the crime with a plastic bag still on the victim’s head, but that happened only once when I’d been running late from picking up Romi from preschool."  Held on their own private island, they have to go inside buildings every day at 4 p.m. to avoid passing satellite surveillance.  This invitation is unusual in that it comes just one year after the last.  Refusing is not an option.

"As I stroked the creamy vellum paper, for a brief moment I thought about sending my regrets. But only for a moment. After all, it wasn’t an option on the R.S.V.P. card. Unlike most family reunions with sack races, bad weather and crappy T-shirts, where to refuse to go only meant you weren’t in the ridiculous all-family photo, to turn down this invitation was death. That’s right. Death. Any blooded member of the family who didn’t show was terminated. Now, where had I put that goddamned pen?"

It appears a mole has wormed his way into the family, it's a male member of the family is all that's known and Virginia has been assigned the task of eliminating the threat. Things get complicated when she falls in love with a bodyguard for a man she has been assigned to take out.  But enough plot.  Just plain fun.

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You have got to feel sorry for this snake.

"A python (upper right) lies wedged on the wing of a Qantas passenger plan as it flies over Port Moresby, on January 10, 2013. Passengers on a flight from Australia to Papua New Guinea were shocked to look out their cabin windows to find a huge snake on the wing of the plane. The three meter-long (9.1 foot) non-poisonous Amethystine python appeared about an hour into the Qantas flight between Cairns in northern Queensland and the Papua New Guinean capital of Port Moresby. (Reuters/Robert Weber/"

Why I no longer support the United Way

I wrote this originally about 10 years ago. Nothing has changed in the meantime.

I used to be a strong supporter of the United Way. It made sense to write one check or have a small amount deducted from my salary every pay period to be distributed among a group of agencies. I was always surprised and disappointed to hear from the small but vocal minority who refused to participate because some of the money went to an organization of which they did not approve. But after several years of reflection, I have come to a similar conclusion, albeit for other reasons. They are three: the nature of institutional decay, the need for individual responsibility, and a desire to avoid homogeneity and the “team mentality.”

All institutions whether they are created originally by volunteers or are more formally established, go through stages or life cycles. Initially, the officers and members are enthusiastic and dedicated to the mission of the organization. Later, as the original staff burn-out or retire, the responsibility for maintenance of the mission is inherited by “professionals.” These well meaning individuals bring a subtle shift to the goals of the institution. Now the continuance of the organization, particularly its growth and increase in staff (which bring visibility and prestige to the managers), becomes utmost in importance. Often the original mission of the organization takes second place. In the case of United Way, we now see a national organization, funded lavishly by local groups that are required to subsidize a large staff with mammoth salaries, buildings, private aircraft, etc. Such excesses lead inevitably to the scandals such as we have seen in recent years.

Secondly, the United Way insidiously -- although not deliberately -- takes away the individual’s responsibility to support agencies in which he or she believes. A group of “community leaders,” not elected (hence not representative), decide how the funds will be dispersed. The agencies then have to appeal not to the loyalty of individual supporters, nor to the populations they are to help, but rather to a group of people who may have a completely different agenda from those expected to donate the money to support the agencies. This has a circularly devastating effect on the way managers are hired. No longer does an agency hire someone who can best provide support to the population its mission addresses, but rather on how well the manager can get money from the unelected board that distributes money. I suggest the skills required to do each job are vastly different.

Similarly, the process removes the individual’s responsibility to become party to the process of helping one’s fellow man. It has become so easy to have that little amount deducted, to turn over the job (and it is a task) of deciding which organizations to support to someone else. The collectivization of charity has artfully removed individuals from the process that should require us to investigate and decide ourselves. We have essentially created a mini government without representation that disperses our money without our input.

Finally, I object to the “team-mentality” that pervades the whole United Way campaign. The notion that companies and institutions compete against one another for the highest percentage of contributors offends my sense of individuality. There is often huge pressure placed on individuals (fortunately this is not true at HCC) to “join the team” irrespective of the philosophy or individual reasoning of the person. Society places too much emphasis on conformity as it is. The attitude is “trust us with your money.” “Let us make the decisions for you.” I think it’s time to return the decision-making to yourself. Don’t join the team arbitrarily. Support your community by participating in it. Investigate groups that ask for money. Do your own research. And then give generously to those causes you believe to be important. Do not abrogate your responsibility.

I urge you support of charities and worthwhile organizations. There are many that do an excellent job and are worthy of your time and money.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Back from the Deep: The Strange Story of the Sister Subs 'Squalus' and 'Sculpin'

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Back from the Deep: The Strange Story of the Sister Subs 'Squalus' and 'Sculpin':

The account of two WW II submarines who, through a weird twist of fate, had their stories intertwined. The Sculpin, in 1939, had helped located and rescue sailors from the Squalus when it went down in 240 feet of water off New Hampshire. Later in the war, the Sailfish, the rechristened Squalus lined up her torpedoes and attacked an enemy escort carrier which, it happens, was transporting prisoners that had been captured from the Sculpin. Many were drowned.

The Sculpin and Squalus were sister submarines launched in 1938. On one of her final trial runs, the induction valve (the huge air intake for the diesel engines) failed to close during a test crash dive and the Squalus sank. This was to be the first test of the Momsen lung (Momsen himself was to participate in the rescue) and the diving bell the Navy had installed and built following numerous submarine losses in the preceding decade. The survivors were now trapped in the control room and torpedo room. Fortunately the sub was not on its side but held a slight 11% upward angle (at 320 feet long, technically the bow, had it had enough buoyancy, I suppose could have stuck up out of the water. One option considered was to attach high pressure air lines to the sub and fill it with enough air to blow it to the surface. They decided to use the rescue bell instead, the first time it was used to rescue sailors trapped in a sub.) A big problem was that the last transmission before they dived to indicate their transmission was garbled slightly in the last digit so they were actually five miles away from where they had reported diving.

Well, enough spoilers. This is a fascinating account of overlapping coincidental tragedies. Submarine service was risky enough and submariners lost their lives at a rate 6 times that of any other service during WW II.

P.S. Excellent detailed website regarding the salvage of the Squalus at

Another book about the original sinking and salvage of the Squalus is Peter Maas' The Terrible Hours

Also A Tale of Two Subs An Untold Story of World War II, Two Sister Ships, and Extraordinary Heroism

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Friday, January 04, 2013

Flipping Off a Cop Is No Crime, Appeals Court Says - Hit & Run :

Flipping Off a Cop Is No Crime, Appeals Court Says - Hit & Run :

It's the Bad Frog decision reference that got my attention.

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Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish:

I love books like this.  Take some obscure or mundane topic or subject and dissect it to the nth degree.  I doubt if anyone reading this really has a fondness for those slippery, slimy creatures, and yet it turns out they are singularly fascinating. “The freshwater eel, of the genus Anguilla, evolved more than fifty million years ago, giving rise to fifteen separate species. Most migratory fish, such as salmon and shad, are anadromous, spawning in freshwater and living their adult lives in salt water. The freshwater eel is one of the few fishes that does the opposite, spawning in the sea and spending its adulthood in lakes, rivers, and estuaries—a life history known as catadromy (in Greek ana- “means “up” and cata- means “down,” the prefixes suggesting the direction the fish migrates to reproduce).* But among catadromous fishes, the eel is the only one that travels to the depths of the oceans so far offshore. . . .No one has ever been able to find a spawning adult or witness a freshwater eel spawning in the wild. For eel scientists, solving the mystery of eel reproduction remains a kind of holy grail.”  And they determinedly try to return to their ocean origins.  Place some in an aquarium and they will try every way possible to squirm their way out.  If there is no way, they die.

Interesting people abound.  Ray, for example, a hermit (or recluse, if you prefer) who lives in a shack off the Delaware river and has a permit, which he inherited from his father, to operate an eel weir.  Every year  (he  has a degree in engineering) he carefully rebuilds the stone weir, repositioning the stones into walls (every year they are destroyed by ice and flooding.)   All in preparation for the September run. A good year will yield 2,500 eels weighing on average .85 pounds each. He puts them in salt to kill them then turns them in a cement mixer filled with gravel to get the slime off, guts them with a knife and hot-smokes them to restaurants and passersby saving a few for personal eating.  Fascinating.

Eels are relentless in their efforts to return to their "ocean womb."  Just try keeping some in an aquarium sometime.  They'll be all over your floor.  In New Zealand, where the Maori have a long symbiotic relationship with eels, they have been known to roll up in balls to get across land masses and try to get through hydraulic dam generators.   Tradition has it they will live for centuries waiting for some typhoon to wash them out to sea from some land-locked pond or lake. For the Maori, it's one of the highest sources of protein for them so when the British, in the guise of the Acclimatization Society stocked everything with trout only to discover eels love trout,  they embarked on a vast "kill the eels" program, with detailed instructions on how best to do it on every fishing license.   The result was much the same as the campaign that killed off most of the buffalo.

Of course there were unintended consequences.  Turns out killing the eels meant the trout, having no natural predatory exploded in population. "The trout in eel-free rivers had become more numerous, yes, but the average size was much smaller. In the 1950s, a biologist named Max Burnett studying the interaction of trout and eels in the streams of Canterbury discovered that the eel, maligned and needlessly slaughtered, was actually in part responsible for the now world-famous trout fishing in New Zealand. By preying on the trout, the eel was culling a population that soon became overpopulated and stunted without them. With the eels in the rivers, the trout were fewer but much larger. Burnett’s work showed that the presence of eels was beneficial and single-handedly turned around public opinion of them. The killing stopped. "  And now New Zealand is again celebrated for its trout fishing.

That doesn't mean the Maori can't be cruel to the eels: " People who smoke eel usually leave the skin on the fish but remove the unappetizing slime with salt, ash, or detergent. Even Ray, who had worked in slaughterhouses his whole life, admitted their method was cruel—removing their protective slime while suffocating them.* The eels reacted by writhing and rolling in the dry detergent, trying to use their tails to get it off their bodies, but it only spread the caustic powder. When the eels were dead Ray rubbed them down with a sugar sack to remove any leftover slime, snipped their tails to bleed them, and hung them by their heads. "

Let's be clear; I wouldn't be caught dead preparing or eating eel (more on death from preparing eel in a bit.)  But it does have healthful benefits: "Eel meat has well-known health-giving properties.* It is high in vitamins A and E, containing four times more vitamin A than cheese and eight times more than egg, six times more vitamin E than cheese and three times more than egg. Vitamin A is good for human skin. Vitamin E helps prevent aging. Eel is also rich in fish oils that contain antioxidants to aid the immune system and fight sickness. Because of its high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, eel has been found to help prevent type 2 diabetes. A native of Kyoto told me, “They have a saying in Kyoto—that the girls have beautiful skin because they eat eel.”

Well, maybe.  As note above, preparing eel comes with several risks.  The blood contains a strong neurotoxin so getting it into one's blood stream through a cut or opening in the skin can cause death. One cubic centimeter of eel blood injected into a rabbit, "causes instant convulsions and death."  That's one reason why it's always served smoked or cooked and never raw.  Whoopi-do.

Shades of John McPhee (high praise, indeed)

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America's Real Criminal Element: Lead | Mother Jones

America's Real Criminal Element: Lead | Mother Jones:

Fascinating article.  Mother Jones had done another story about how much lead is still present in the environment.

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Speeding cops: FHP trooper files federal lawsuit - Sun Sentinel

Speeding cops: FHP trooper files federal lawsuit - Sun Sentinel:

Stems from an incident in which she pulled over a Miami cop for speeding and driving recklessly in a marked police car but while he was off duty. He was apparently going over 100 because he was late for work.

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Grisham's The Confession

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Confession:

The problem with reading clubs is that occasionally someone suggests a dud and one feels forced to finish the book out of courtesy to the other participants.  That's what happened here.

I abhor the death penalty.  I approve of Grisham's message 100%, but my goodness this book is repetitive and tedious. Not to mention I felt bruised and battered by being hit over the head constantly by the message.  I listened to it and found the FF button to be incredibly useful.  The irony was I could fast forward 15 minutes and think I hadn't moved forward at all. The characters are stereotypical cardboard cutouts. Their speeches (they don't talk, they proclaim,) are all cookie-cutter, but the dough gets stale quickly.  The book would have been much stronger had there been some shades of gray, some ethical tensions. There just are none here.

For example, did the prosecutors and cops set out to kill an innocent man?  Of course, not.  They were subject to cultural, racial, and political pressures.  An examination of the force of those pressures would have made a much more interesting book. And what if there had been no confession? How about an examination of the legal hurdles that prevent uncovering police malfeasance? Or an examination of the Supreme Court's reasoning that innocence is not a defense?  (See Connick v Thomson.) To quote Reason Magazine: "Scalia has written in the past that there's nothing in the Constitution to prevent the government from executing an innocent person. He also apparently believes there's no duty for the government to preserve or turn over evidence that would prove a person's innocence. Finally, from Connick we learn he also believes that prosecutors and municipalities shouldn't be held liable to people who are wrongly convicted and imprisoned, either, even if prosecutors knowingly concealed the evidence that would have exonerated them."  Now *that* would have made a fascinating book.

I don't like giving negative ratings and usually don't review books I didn't like, but in this case I resent the time spent listening to this; it was like trying to move through quicksand.  Be interesting to see what the rest of the group thinks, especially since they are a particularly high-minded literary group.

Do you suppose the moderator got it wrong and it should have been Augustine's Confessions?

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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Always Say Goodbye Review

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Always Say Goodbye:

I am rapidly becoming a fan of Stuart Kaminsky and am dipping into all of his series. In this early Lou Fonesca novel, it's four years after he fled to Florida following the hit-and-run killing of his wife, a Chicago prosecutor.  Lou has been living in obscurity working as a process server.

Deciding to get some closure (a concept in real life I find silly at best) he decides to go back to Chicago and find out why and by whom his wife was killed.  His brother-in-law, Franco, a tow-truck driver, has got to be my favorite character.

Several twists at the end.  Fun read.

A common thread across all the series from those I've read seems to be onion bagels with cream cheese.

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The Prosecution by Buffa Review

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Prosecution:

Joseph Antonelli is coaxed out of retirement by a judge, an old friend, who has learned of a charge against the current chief deputy D.A. that he had had his wife killed.  The confessed killer, offered the testimony that he had been hired to kill her in return for a reduced sentence.

We'll forget details of the plot, or should I say plots, since there are really two distinct story lines, tied together only by Antonelli's friendship with the judge. As is usual in books like this, each story has a little twist at the end that serves to expand our understanding of Antonelli's character as he plays both sides of the fence in this one.

Buffa really knows how to write courtroom dialog.  Those sections are very hard to put down. Antonelli's ruminations might prove distracting for those who wish a more linear story that moves without pause, but I find it's always nice to stop a while and smell the roses.

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Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Battle for the Books Inside Google's Gambit to Create the World's Biggest Library

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Battle for the Books Inside Google's Gambit to Create the World's Biggest Library:

Short but enlightening summary of the events and issues surrounding the infamous Google book digitization project.

First, let's get my biases out of the way.  I'm a retired academic library director who also happened to be the IT Director at my college, and as such I drool over the idea of having all of the books in the world available on line and fully searchable.  I also believe the publishers and especially the Author's Guild are making a huge mistake by fighting Google on digitization.  Rather than seeing this as a way to make money, they remain mired in the 19th century, seeing it only as a threat.

The project is the brainchild of the two Google founders and clearly it's a labor of love for them. They often cite the example of the Library of Alexandria  which had made an effort to accumulate universal knowledge but was burned in 48 B.C.E.  by Julius Caesar, a calamity.  Brin and Page simply want all the world's information to be retrievable. "As for Page and Brin themselves, they don’t seem to have cared whether the world thought they were visionaries or villains. They had a task to accomplish. As Winograd  [a former teacher at Stanford] said, 'I think if you ask them, [they’d say] this is going to get done, even in five years. This is the technological imperative — information must be searchable. They’re often more in tune to the technological imperative than to social barriers.' "  It's ironic that publishers and authors can now been seen as "social barriers" by some.

After initial praise, including participation from Harvard, reaction built to apocalyptic proportions, adversaries (now joined by Robert Darnton at Harvard, and, ironically, Lawrence Lessig) claiming that the project represents the end of the world in a conflagration of multiple bibliographic dystopias. " The company’s legal boldness has ruffled authors and publishers, but also made plain just how ill-suited many copyright rules are to an era in which anyone can copy entire books with the click of a mouse."

The linkage between the library community and the engineering mindset of Google is fascinating.  Librarians generally adopt a philosophy that promotes sharing (although as a board member of a multi-type system in Illinois, it became obvious to me that librarians, public, in particular, really like borrowing, and abhor sharing: God forbid another public library might get first crack at *their* patrons' new books first, something that digital union catalogs has fostered.

Personally, I think Google's reliance on pushing the envelope of what constitutes  "fair use" and relying on that to push the frontier, is misplaced.  Google should have publicly proposed (they secretly did, and that was a problem, the company's excessive desire for keeping everything secret) a royalty to the author for each access to one of the scanned books. The original settlement between the Author's Guild and Google has been thrown out so what will happen remains to be seen.  The Author's Guild original settlement was for a lump sum, which, as far as I can determine, benefited no one except the AG lawyers and staff.  All that being said [spoiler alert] the author believes that the battle has petered out and it will be a while before the huge file of books Google has (note that Robert Darnton, who shoved Google's initiative under the bus, has started his own competing initiative, but then he really wants to be Librarian of Congress) ever becomes available.

*One fascinating detail is that the University of Michigan under Wilkin (bless him) proceeded to digitize books still under copyright reckoning that since the University was a state agency he could not be sued since copyright law is federal and the 11th amendment prohibited another state or person outside the state from suing a state. (The story of why we have an 11th amendment is fascinating in itself - go look it up, it was a major set back for a new Supreme Court in 1795, Georgia leading the charge against what it perceived as an attack on its sovereignty.  Howvere--- " in Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123(1908), the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts may enjoin state officials from violating federal law."

**For anyone who cares, I've embarked on my own little project.  A company in CA will scan books for $1.00 per 100 pages and then send me the digital file as a pdf.  (They use the guillotine method that destroys the original so there is no hint of copyright problem since they are merely replacing the format.)  I them run the pdf against a really good OCR program which then creates an html file which I then convert to an epub and mobi file in Caliber. Outstanding.  I'm doing this for all the big tomes I own which take up so much frigging room and are hard to physically read. Other books I own for which there are digital files, I purchase and then sell the physical copies on Amazon.  There are tons of OP books that I wish would get scanned and made available.  I'd gladly pay something for them on Google Books, but until they sort out the mess...

*** Another interesting tidbit: "To track and record what it was scanning, Google relied on bar codes and bibliographic data from its library partners. But not all the time. Upon visiting its first U.K. partner, Oxford University, Google executives were astonished to discover that large portions of the medieval school’s collections are organized by size rather than U.S.-style subject headings. “You get real efficiencies if you lump all small books together, big books together, and thick books together,” Oxford librarian Michael Popham explained to me."  Just think if they had shelved them by color, then the next time someone came in looking for a book of which he could only remember the color...

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