Monday, November 23, 2009

IBM and the Holocaust

I was extremely excited to come across this book as it involves a couple of topics in which I'm extremely interested--early computing and World War 2--with a good dash of conspiracy thrown in.  So interested, in fact, that it zoomed right to the top of my reading pile...I actually went bookless for two days waiting for it to arrive in the mail.  My wife can tell you that this is an unprecedented turn of events!

Edwin Black does a magnificent job detailing the role that the technology controlled by International Business Machines played in accelerating the pace of the Holocaust.  In the introduction to the book, Black unequivocally states so as the reader does not make a mistake:  the Holocaust would have still happened without IBM's involvement.  However, without the automation supplied by IBM, the process would have been vastly less efficient.  Case in point: the stark contrast between the high percentage of Jews eliminated in Holland (which had an established IBM presence and expertise in automated census counting) and the much lower rate in France (where the market for automated census equipment was fragmented and not well developed).

To make an extremely complex story short, IBM controlled the world's leading technology for tabulation and subsequent sorting of populations, the Hollerith machine.  These machines functioned by reading special punch cards representing digital data, and had been used in the early part of the century to automate census counts in the United States and several European countries.  Despite clear indications that this technology was being used for nefarious purposes by the Nazi party in Germany (and later in conquered territories), IBM, through its German subsidiary, Dehomag, funneled machines and the paper necessary to run them into the Reich.  Throughout the 1930s and into the war, the president of IBM, Thomas J. Watson (who incidentally is often hailed as a hero of American business), formulated a deliberate policy to maintain plausible deniability for his firm's actions that aided the enemy in both its war effort and its campaign to effect the Final Solution to the Jewish problem.

One gripe:  I would have liked the account to have had a more technical discussion of how Hollerith machines used.  I understand on a basic level how alphabetizing and sequential sorting based on categories could be applied to counting people.  However, how these operations might be applied to something as complicated as cargo scheduling and maintaining a train transportation network were not clear to me.

Reading the book has given me a new perspective on the power of a census.  The information (in many cases) voluntarily given to the Nazis by many Jews spelled their own doom throughout the Reich.  The next time I'm filling out a form asking for seemingly unimportant personal details I might give pause to consider how the information might be used.

I went into this book not knowing how I would react.  Isn't the job of a multinational corporation such as IBM to make money?  I would suggest that the answer is "yes" but there is a moral line that should not be crossed to do so.  Black's account proves that IBM didn't just step over the line but kept on walking and didn't look back.  One example:  IBM sent technicians into concentration camps to service the Hollerith machines that were clacking away sorting Jews to the gas chamber.  It is a story of greed gone unchecked--there is no doubt in my mind that IBM, and particularly Thomas J. Watson, has blood on their hands.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Long Walk

I saw my latest read when I was browsing PBS for books. It sounded quite interesting, and I was able to pick up a paperback book that contained four novels written by Stephen King under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman.

Early in his career, King's publisher was concerned that he would oversaturate the market if he published more than one or two books a year. Thus, King convinced his publisher to release these novels straight to paperback as a way of increasing his publication number without diluting the King "brand" (see Wikipedia for more info). It was also an experiment on King's part to determine if his success had been due to luck or his skill as a writer (a question that he says remains open to discussion in his introduction entitled "Why I Was Bachman").

'The Long Walk' has a compelling premise: In a near-future America controlled by a dictator ("The Major"), a yearly race is held where 100 boys must walk for as long as possible. If someone falls below the speed of 4 miles per hour, he is tagged with a warning. Warnings are removed after an hour, but if four warnings are accrued, the unfortunate contestant is "ticketed." Ticketing results in immediate elimination from the Walk in the form of a fatal gunshot by the squad of guards constantly monitoring the race. The winner of the Walk wins the "Prize" which is described as anything the person wants for the rest of their life.

The novel follows Ray Garraty, a 16-year-old boy, who quickly forms a loose association with a number of other boys. As the Walk progresses, we learn bits and pieces about each boys' circumstances and motivations. Why each boy decided to participate in the Long Walk is a thread that runs throughout the story.  Much of the hopelessness of the novel stems from the fact that while a few of the boys had concrete reasons for paricipating, for most it seemed to be a decision without much thought. This leaves them with the realization that their lives are being spent for no good purpose.

I found the story to be quite tense, and the first few ticketings really jolted me. But like the walkers, these incidents became more and more mundane as the Walk wore on. Overall, the circumstances and ideas presented in the novel were more than a little disturbing to me, but I can definitely recommend this tense, tight thriller.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Man Called Intrepid

This fascinating book describes the birth and early years of Allied secret operations during World War 2.  The narrative centers around one man, William Stephenson (or INTREPID if you prefer his codename), a Canadian man of many (and considerable) talents who held the ear of both Churchill and Roosevelt.  Stephenson had an amazing ability to apply his substantial intellect to the merger of science and business during peacetime. When it became apparent during the 1930s that war would soon come to Britain, he transitioned his efforts away from business to preparing covert operations for the Allies.  His many contacts and relationships from around the world were a perfect cover for the people, products necessary for such an undertaking.

All sorts of capers against the backdrop of WW2 are recounted in A Man Called Intrepid.  There was the plot to destroy the Nazi-controlled Norsk Hydro plant in Norway to cut off Germany's supply of heavy water that might be used to develop atomic weapons.  There was the tale of the huge intelligence apparatus set up in Bermuda to monitor all incoming mail ships for the presence of Nazi correspondence (such as film microdots hidden in the periods of sentences!).  There was the story of the "famed Hungarian astrologer" who toured the world predicting Hitler's doom but was actually a hired hand of the BSC and OSS.  Documents were forged on typewriters that were constructed to have flaws identical to those seen in stolen papers originating from particular Nazi offices.  The list goes on and on...

I was struck by how every detail of an operation was meticulously carried out, down to "collecting" (voluntarily or otherwise) authentic European clothing and personal articles from overseas travelers entering America for use by agents working undercover.

The book does an excellent job recounting the political feeling in the United States in the years leading up to our entry in the war.  For instance, I had no idea that Roosevelt was forced to walk such a fine line in America with regards to his policy toward aid to Britain.  He was constantly under assault from isolationists as a war monger and even had to put up with pro-Nazi elements in the US government (note that the majority of these people did not support Nazi policies per se but were deluding themselves as to the scope of Hitler's plan).

Overall, an extremely interesting book that tells many of the stories not found in histories of conventional warfare.  I recommend it!

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Game of Thrones

I've taken to listening to long fantasy epics while working in lab on the microscope--it is a great way to maintain a high entertainment level while actually getting work done!

I attempted to read a paper copy of A Game of Thrones a while back (at least I know I read the beginning) and, as I recalled, didn't find it extremely compelling.  I now suspect that was because I didn't get fully into the plot and was bogged down by the large number of characters and place names in the novel.  I think that the audiobook helped in this respect as the excellent narration (by Roy Doltrice) gave each character their own voice qualities such that it was easier to tell them apart.

The novel centers around House Stark, the family that has ruled the North for thousands of years from their seat at Winterfell castle.  War is once again upon the land during the weak rule of the once strong King Robert Barratheon.  Following his death, different factions in the land are playing at "the game of thrones" to consolidate their own power in the Seven Kingdoms.

Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different major character (most of them from House Stark).  This type of narrative is particularly effective and moves the pace of the action along nicely--I was rarely left hanging wondering what was happening to one character during one of these shifts in narrative.

I definitely tend to more Tolkein-like fantasy with magic, different races, etc.  A Game of Thrones definitely did not follow many of these conventions, instead tending to mimic the customs and culture of medieval Europe.  There has been little mention of races other than humans and no magic in the conventional sense.  It is definitely a different take on a fantasy setting (dare I say refreshing?), distancing itself from the more formulaic world/settings of the Wheel of TimeThe Sword of Truth, etc.

The novel opens with a curious incident in the far North, beyond the Wall, where a party of rangers is attacked by a strange humanoid creature (what can only be one of the 'Others').  This somewhat mythical race (maybe human, maybe not) is referred to throughout the book but we never get another solid look at them.  I hope that this plot line is expanded upon in subsequent installments of the series (there are apparently 7 books planned, of which there are currently 4 published).