The Color of Magic

colour of magicThe Color of Magic, Terry Pratchett

Here is a fact that baffles me, and that I cannot explain.

I am a proud second generation nerd. I played Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in middle school and high school. We had the complete five-volume Hitchhiker’s Trilogy at my house, and my dad can reminisce about the first time he read Tolkein and how it changed his life. My friends and I have had standing Battlestar Gallactica and even Stargate watch parties. I have opinions on the different Star Trek iterations, and I have read most Piers Anthony books. I am not a newcomer to nerdom and geekery. This is a way of life to me. And yet. Until recently, I had never read a Terry Pratchett book in my life.

I know! I know. It’s unbelievable. How this could be the case is beyond me. I feel like my parents have failed me, and I have failed myself. But I’m trying to make up for it now.

I figured if I had to know anything about Terry Pratchett I had to know Discworld, so I started with the first book in the 236 book strong Discworld series, Color of Magic. And I loved it. I’m hooked.

Color of Magic introduces Discworld and its bizarre physics and magic, with vivid and inventive detail. Discworld is a flat world that rests on the back of a turtle, the Great A’Tuin (and there’s just the one–it’s not turtles all the way down.) Rincewind, a not-very-competent magician, is hired by Twoflower a “tourist”, a previously unknown thing on Discworld, or at least in the city of Ankh-Morpork. What follows is a series of misadventures for Rincewind and Twoflower touring Discworld, playing with many of the standards of fantasy novels. It’s style will be familiar to those who have read Douglas Adams, but Pratchett is oh-so-very good at it.

This was a breezy, easily readable book, that still had quite a lot going on. The plot is rather quickly moving, with many twists and turns. Some of the Discworld books stand on their own, from what I understand, but this one leads straight into The Light Fantastic–which I then went and checked out from the library.

For anyone else who has somehow missed out on Terry Pratchett and has been wondering whether or not he’s worth the hype, the answer is yes, he is. The book was tremendously fun and I’ll be picking up others. Get it over the holidays. This is excellent vacation reading.

 

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Twitter and Tear Gas

twitter and tear gasTwitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protests, Zeynep Tufecki

Protest is the new brunch, here in Washington, DC. There’s plenty to protest, after all, and it’s easy to find one even for someone who wasn’t that involved before January 20, 2017.  A list of public events in Washington, DC will easily turn up half a dozen lunch time or after work protests for this week alone. The question that doesn’t always get answered, though, is what comes next.

For any engaged activists, Zeynep Tufecki’s book should be required reading. A Turkish national and long time activist and scholar–she’s been at encuentros with the Zapatistas and was part of the Battle of Seattle–Tufekci is broadly supportive of  left wing protests and uprisings, but wary of the new tools that we’re using. She celebrates how many people can be turned out for a march, or to show up in Gezi Park or Tahrir Square, or how activists can find each other, but is painfully aware of the limitations and new challenges these tools provide.

The primary limitation, as Tufecki, points out, is that 1) when activism is easier, it has less meaning–those of us who are activists know this already. A form e-mail has very little weight, since all politicians know it took two seconds to send. A call is better. A personal meeting is best. We’re seeing now an ease to turning out hundreds of people at a time that lessens the impact. 2) The work that went into organizing protests previously, the dozens of meetings, the hours of planning, the discussions, the time spent together, was valuable in and of itself in terms of building trust and building leaders. When we lose that, it makes it harder to move beyond the protest part of the movement.

Tufecki’s analogy here is how modern mountaineering equipment and oxygen tanks make it easier for a novice to climb Mt. Everest. More people than ever before can climb up the mountain, and it maintains impressive, even if less impressive than it was 70 years ago. But when a novice climbs, they’re less likely to be able to adapt or succeed if the run into trouble, even minor trouble that a more experienced mountain climber could overcome. Because someone with more experience and practice has developed the muscles and knowledge they need. Similarly, when a protest encounters a challenge or needs to enter its next phase, those organizing muscles are useful to adapt and move forward.

Twitter and Tear Gas is an incredibly insightful, and well researched, document of the new challenges that activists truly interested in change need to overcome. Tufecki celebrates some of the changes, including how much easier it is for activists to find each other, and the way that social media was able to break through some of the censorship that existed in middle Eastern and other countries. She’s very clear on the issues, though. One is that protest has an attraction in and of itself that brings people together, but it has limitations in moving things forward. There can only be sustained change if there is a goal and people know how they are going to achieve those goals. Instead, protests are attracting attendees who want change but don’t think that voting or participating in institutional options will ever change anything, a common thread among attendees at Occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square, making it difficult to do anything besides protest. Additionally, protests that have sprung up suddenly with no central leadership or plan, which she refers to as “adhocracies” have the challenge of moving forward. She details how when the Turkish government wanted to negotiate with protestors at Gezi Park the movement couldn’t identify anyone, leading the Turkish government to invite people–meaning the leaders were decided by the government, not the movement.

She is also very clear on the power of protests. They can bring additional attention to an issue, as happened in the Arab Spring. They can also introduce activists to one another. She cites a fascinating study showing that after the initial Tea Party protests that happened around the United States, locations that had heavy rain–which depressed protest attendance–saw less subsequent turnout from Republicans than areas that had good weather, which swung Republican in the next election to a greater degree. Tufecki points out, however, that there was a clear engagement with attendees after the protests. She cites another study showing that while Tea Party members may be uninformed about what policies would actually do, or the actual statistics on immigration, crime, and so forth, they were more educated than many career politicians on the intricacies of how legislation was made, when the votes were, who was on each committee, etc.

As shown in the above example, the limitations of networked protests are ones that can be overcome, with effort, by movements. More challenging are the direct negatives of social media. Having only one or two companies with such control over spreading information is a huge challenge, as we already know. Facebook’s “real name” policy, one enforced only when there is a complaint, means that anyone can be targeted and have to jump through hoops to prove their name. Even more important, it means that LGBT activists, activists in oppressive governments, and others can be outed placing their lives at real risk. Twitter has its own issues regarding harassment, as almost everyone knows. One tweet noticed by the wrong person results in death threats, rape threats, doxing, and threats to one’s family. Twitter is unwilling to step in and put up meaningful barriers, pushing many people off of the platform, and giving others pause before they are engaged in advocacy.

And, of course, the way that social media can be used to push false information. Twitter and Tear Gas came out in 2017, but was written in the preceding two years. Given that, it’s a bit squirm inducing to read about how Turkey, Tunisia, and even China have moved from straight censorship to instead working to muddy the waters, pushing their own versions of stories, questioning media leaders, and seeking to make it difficult to know what’s happening by producing hundreds of questionable news articles. And reading of how Russian troll armies spread disinformation about NATO ahead of Sweden’s NATO vote was enough to send chills down my spine. What was incredible here was learning how every thing that was done to undermine the US elections was well known and documented in other contexts even before 2016, and yet we were fully exposed with no precautions, no challenges to the way Facebook did business, and no, or minimal effort, to track down and close down Russian trolls and bots.

There were areas I found lacking. She is a student of activist movements and history, clearly learning from US movements as well as others, and given that I would have hoped for a bit more on how people have overcome such issues before. The US has faced threats to trust in our institutions before. We were lied into a war before. Radio changed the way we interacted with the world once again, giving people more access to the outside world but also quickly taken up by people like Father Coughlin spreading vile lies. Pamphleteers and snake oil salesman showed that not everyone could be believed. What changed? Did the fever break on its own, or were their concrete steps that helped? If the latter, how can we adapt those steps for today’s world? And in general I would have liked more suggestions for change. Her chapter on the challenges of Twitter seemed to boil down to, “It’s good and bad, it’s hard to know what to do.” A position with which I sympathize, but I also know there are many people thinking about how to overcome that challenge and it would have been helpful to have an overview of some of their thoughts.

Overall, though, I thought this was an incredibly useful and insightful book that should be spread far and wide. In an era where we have five calls, Facebook Town Hall, and dozens and dozens of organizations to send us action alerts, while at the same time a bill polling at 12% passes the House and is stopped by the Senate by only 1 vote, it feels as if we are more connected and more separated from our elected officials than ever before. Twitter and Tear Gas helps to identify the new challenges we face so that we can organize more effectively and start to move forward and make change. Read this book before your next brunch.

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree Planting Tribe

EDCoverEating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree Planting Tribe, Charlotte Gill

I’m not going to argue Canada is perfect–even if Justin Trudeau is dreamy and wears Star Wars socks and greets refugees. They are still dredging up tar sands, and they’re still not close to meeting their Paris agreement limits. But Canada is a country that has long made money off of their natural resources and, if not strict preservationists, they certainly understand old-school conservation and wise-use of resources. They take sustainable use seriously. This is, after all, a country that boarded a Spanish boat because of illegal fishing. And this means that they want their logging to last a long time as well. Any logging on public land needs to be reforested. And 94% of the logging takes place on public land.

Eating Dirt is a memoir from Charlotte Gill, one of the thousands of Canadians fanning across the country each year to carry out this reforestation. It’s dirty, backbreaking piece work, with people getting paid by the tree, and expected to plant at least 1000 trees each day. Which isn’t impossible. According to Gill, the record holder is 15,700 red pine seedlings in one day. It’s work that’s done often by college students, but also has a contingent of regular migrant workers that come back year after year. Gill is one of these, planting for 20 years.

Gill is an evocative writer. It’s easy to become immersed in the world and feel oneself there, to feel the chill in the air in the mornings, smell the dirt and the damp, feel the tiredness in ones bones. And she does a good job of capturing the camaraderie, painting a sketch of the types of people who come and go, sharing the danger and the fun of the work. And she mixes this with stories of how the tree planting laws came to be, of her small part in reforesting, and a clear view that planting thousands of pine trees does not a healthy, old-growth ecosystem make. These snippets were interesting, but Gill was at her best writing memories rather than information.

Tree planting is also repetitive work, and towards the end of the book I thought that I’d gotten the gist of it. I imagine that’s also how many planters feel at the end of the summer, so perhaps it was what she was going for stylistically, but I did think the book could have either been shorter, or she could have worked on the intermittent thoughts on forests and history a bit more. But that’s a mild complaint. Overall, it was an interesting book on a topic and world I knew nothing about. This is an entire life that many of us aren’t connected to in anyway, and one can’t help but be interested.