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 government created the leaders, rather than 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 fully exposed with no precautions, no challenges to the way Facebook did business, no, or minimal effort, to track down and close down Russian trolls and bots.

I would have liked a bit more from Tufecki in a few places. 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? 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.

Disarming Beauty

Disarming-Beauty-3D_7-1Disarming Beauty, Julián Carrón

Disarming Beauty is a series of essay by Julián Carrón, the current leader of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic organization based in Italy that started in the 1950s. These essays lay out much of the philosophy of Communion and Liberation, primarily the belief in a true encounter with Christ as the foundation of Christianity and the encounter with the perfect human of Jesus Christ as essential in letting us recognize and experience ourselves as human.

After reading some fairly glowing reviews of the book, I had high hopes. I ended up disappointed once I picked it up. For one, this collection of essays reads, well, like it is a collection of essayx. I had trouble finding the through line, how everything connected in the book. Where there was a point that was emphasized, that of the encounter with Christ, it was repeated several times, rather than built upon. The same phrases and arguments were presented again and again, rather than having a book that grew its main thesis.

My other issue is that, given the number of essays here, there were some areas that were lacking. The book hammers on the individual encounter with Christ, with Christ as the perfect human, and the idea that no institutions can be perfect (which I agree with), and that the Enlightenment’s failure was in thinking that laws could be set up to perfect humans with no other internal impetus to be better. It is very much an existential Christianity, that criticized the Western emphasis on individualism while repeatedly saying that it’s up to each individual to recognize Christ and try to be more Christlike, because no one else will do it for you.

For a Catholic organization, this seems off, though. If this is the case, where does the Church come in? Where does community and Communion come in? How do Church doctrines fit into this? I understand from my other readings that Communion and Liberation very much believes in building a community and in encountering Christ through the Church, but that did not come out in this book. It was almost, dare I say, Protestant, in its assistance that we each have an individual—which could also be described as personal—encounter—or relationship, one might say—with Christ. I do truly believe that a personal encounter and acceptance is essential, and that it does come from within, but that a key part of being a Christian is being within community as well. And especially when writing on Catholicism, this community and Church teaching is a key part of our faith, I would have liked to have read how, in his view, that interacts with the individual.

Fr. Carrón is an excellent writer, and I think most of the individual essays (although not all) are quite good, and I’d probably enjoy reading one in a magazine or some such. And, as a friend put it, it’s easy to get caught up in the “loftiness of the language” in the essays and feel you’re really being pulled along towards something. In the end, though, I didn’t find the end of what I was being pulled towards, only another repetition of what I’d read earlier. Each essay on its own is fine, but for me, this book seemed less than the sum of its parts.

The Constant Gardener

ConstantGardenerbookcoverThe Constant Gardener, John Le Carré

Oftentimes before I write one of these essays I look at other reviews of the book to help muddle through my own thoughts. Nothing helps me to sharpen and clarify my opinions after all as much as disagreeing with someone else. I look at reviews especially when it’s a) been a while since I finished the book and I want to refresh my memory and/or b) if it’s a book that came out more than a few years ago as I like to be reminded of the climate when it was released.

When reading reviews of The Constant Gardener I noticed two main things. Firstly, that every reviewer had to write about The Constant Gardener in relation to other books by John Le Carré. I haven’t read anything else by Le Carré–although I have two other books of his on my to-be-read shelves–so I’m afraid it will have to stand on its own for me. Secondly, that the reviewers all commented on this new type of book that Le Carré had struck upon, a novel that explored the wrong doings of corporations (as opposed to the cold war spy novels of previous years), and one that was meant to motivate people to action. The reviews all wonder whether this sort of intrigue, a person against a corporation, a book that was meant to anger us about an industry, could possibly take off. It’s so strange to hear now, when fighting against an evil corporation is the standard in so many novels and movies. I had no idea Le Carré was such a trend setter.
On to the book itself, read with none of that background knowledge, it was a very engaging read. Justin Quayle, the constant gardener of the title, is a quintessentially British character, quiet, gentlemanly, courteous, and content as a foreign service officer drifting along for his career. The kind of man who can be easily overlooked, with the best description being that his politeness is easily mistaken for weakness. A character I recognize as someone to be admired from many of the British mysteries and suspense novels I’ve read. His beautiful young wife, Tessa Quayle, who many suspected was having one or more affairs, is brutally murdered at the start of the book, leading Justin to search for the real reason she was killed, and carry on her work.

The book takes on, in a rather roundabout and fictional way, pharmaceutical companies, corruption with both donor nations and developing nations, and the use of donations and people in the developing world as guinea pigs for new drugs. This is what Tessa and Dr. Arnold Bluhm–who the rumor mill said she was sleeping with–had been tracking, with Tessa trying to find a way to bring attention to their bad works within the British government, naively insisting on working within the institutions.

And this was my biggest issue with the novel. Tessa is portrayed throughout as an activist, highly moral, tenacious, and brilliant (and rich and gorgeous and so on and so forth. She is the point of the whole novel and the plot point for Justin to start his part of the story, after all.) She is forward thinking encrypting her communications, sending additional letters to family for others to find, etc. And yet, the report that would expose these bad deeds, that Justin is trying to piece together, is never found. I just found it so difficult to believe that this brilliant lawyer, knowing that she’s fighting an amoral corporation with many resources and no scruples about silencing critics, wouldn’t have created a fail safe and sent the report off somewhere. Left a key for Justin to a safe deposit box? Mailed copies to her brother? Anything. It didn’t ring true to me. Apologies for nitpicking, but I’m afraid it’s what I do.

The second part that I thought didn’t quite work was this apparently brand new notion of a novel that would motivate people to future activism. Le Carré was obviously sincere about this, and wrote a follow up bit that’s in the book about how all of these pieces are true in their own way, and that these bad acts are happening around the world and primarily in Africa. However, the companies and occurrences were too generic in the book for me to feel that I could use them as a jumping off point, the activist groups fictionalized as well. There needed to be a bit more docu- to the -fiction for it to really work as the rallying call he intended.

As a book, though, I found it compelling-despite my issue with the MacGuffin at the center–and a suspenseful novel. Le Carré can craft a page turner, that is for sure, even if it’s a page turner far more subtle than other suspense or spy novels we might be used to. And I enjoyed the characters more than I thought. For anyone whose seen the movie, don’t let it discourage you. The relationships as written in the book made far more sense, Justin was more compelling, the various characters on the periphery were more rounded and intriguing, and overall I wanted to keep reading. Le Carré is not an optimistic man, I fear, and this book was no exception, and despite his novel decrying the neo-colonialism of capitalism and humanitarianism, there’s still more than a whiff of old colonial feeling in the book, leading to an air of sadness over the whole affair. It kept me thinking about the book well after I’d finished, though, which I always take as a good sign. I look forward to finishing the others on my to be read shelf and taking on some of his classics.

The City and the Stars

the city and the starsThe City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is the best writer of the “Big Three” sci-fi authors, speaking in terms of the craft of writing. Better than Asimov, far better than Heinlein. He and Bradbury are probably the best of the classics. Clarke’s interesting to read as well, though, because he foresees societies that really are different than our own, and, setting him apart from others, his future societies are often relatively free of conflict. His books are rarely violent, and barely any conflict. They slowly move forward with people more or less behaving decently, and even most of those who don’t still trying to do the right thing. They’re carried forward almost entirely by the writing and new ideas. One almost gets the sense he finds classic story elements of violence, distrust, and other conflict get in the way of the ideas he wants to pursue, with how quickly he rushes in in each book to explain, “Those silly problems of jealousy and anger weren’t a problem anymore! And no one would consider hurting someone. Now, on to the real meat of the story.”

That being said, if you read too many of his books in a short period of time they can start to get a bit tedious. The first time you read a book where nothing much happens and humans have become exceptionally advanced and everyone more or less gets along it’s rather refreshing, and it seems like such a brave choice from the author. After three or four you kind of want something to happen.

The City and the Stars is much farther in the future than most of Clarke’s books, an incomprehensible one billion years in the future. The main character, Alvin, lives in the self-contained city of Diaspar, where all decisions have been outsourced to artificial intelligence and humans study, produce art, wander the city, talk with one another, and whatever else they would like to do, with no concern for money or need until they decide they’d like to have their intelligence returned to the central computer and returned at a later date. Interesting to consider the way science fiction authors of the past considered automation–Clarke would have been all for a universal basic income and incredibly productive robots. I believe Asimov and many old “what does the future hold!” Disney cartoons thought that was the goal, as well.

The artificial intelligence for Diaspar controls everything, including the mix of personalities in the city, and every now and then they throw in a “unique” such as Alvin, someone who is a brand new personality mix rather than an old one retrieved from the archives. As a “unique” Alvin isn’t terrified of leaving the city of Diaspar, which all others are afraid to do. No one ever travels outside the city walls. He does, finding a new city, Lys, which limited their use of robots and instead perfected the human mind and telepathy. Two paths for humanity. There’s more that comes after explaining why most humans left earth, why some stayed behind and created the only two cities left on earth, Diaspar and Lys, and something about a galactic intelligence-another Clarke staple-but honestly the first half of the book was the most interesting.

I enjoy Clarke. I am heartened by the obvious hope he has for humanity, and it’s rather curious to read Utopian rather than dystopian science fiction these days. His writing, as I mentioned, really is excellent. I find myself hoping he’s right that we can make a good future for ourselves. It usually puts me in a better mood. Plus, this is also a fairly slim volume, so it was a quick read. For future reading, though, I just think every now and then I need some action.

The Martian

the-martian-by-andy-weir-r-1000x1000The Martian, Andy Weir    

There are often times in life where I have to explain something to a group, and I’m struggling with how to get started, or to condense a complex topic down to a few power point slides. And as I’m trying to figure out how to do this and playing online, I realize that xkcd has already done this, and so much better than I could ever hope to do.

 

 

the_martian_2x

So. Yeah, that’s a fairly good description of this book. This is an excellent piece of science fiction, with a hard emphasis on the science. I first read this book because I heard an interview with the author on a science podcast I listen to, and the author was hilarious and incredibly interesting. Andy Weir even talked about the challenges he faced running simulations of interplanetary travel at different points in the future to make sure the possible orbits he was discussing would happen at the proper times as he wrote in his book, and that the rocket flights would be mathematically correct. That is a nerdiness and attention to accuracy of which I am in awe.

For a hard science book, The Martian is also a very easy and enjoyable read. For those of you who don’t know the background yet, it takes place in 2035, when Martian missions are relatively new but semi-routine. One mission requires an emergency evacuation and astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is accidentally left behind. The rest of the book is dedicated to Mark Watney staying alive, and the crew and NASA trying to save him. (Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon in the movie, leading to a wonderful breakdown of how much money the world has spent rescuing Matt Damon. Roughly US$900 Billion, adjusted for inflation).

The way all of the problems are solved in the book are wonderful. If you like McGyver, or that one scene in Apollo 13, if you’ve ever done Odyssey of the Mind spontaneous problems, you will love this book. The way that NASA realizes that Watney is still alive is one of the best points, in my opinion, but everything about how he keeps himself alive, builds and rebuilds life support systems, was wonderful. And even when things go wrong-and lots of things go wrong-it was interesting and realistic. (If you didn’t read the alt-text on the xkcd cartoon, it states “I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you’ve just bricked something important because you didn’t pay enough attention to a loose wire.”) It also made me consider how absolutely amazing it is that we have ever been to space. Everything, absolutely everything, has to go right, or everything immediately goes wrong.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, anyone who enjoys suspenseful novels, and anyone who enjoys a fun beach read. I finished in two days; someone without kids can probably do it in one.  It’s not that the book is perfect, the author admits that in a few places he had to take some liberties with the science in order to make it workable. He just ignored how radioactive being in space is, for instance. But most of it is pretty accurate, and the whole book is a fantastically fun read. If you missed it the first time it went around, you should probably pick it up today.