Cory Doctorow’s For The Win is about goldfarmers and unions and economics. It’s a good primer on all these issues, but as per usual, I feel like the novel was more of an excuse for Doctorow to write in-character mini-essays. Not to say they weren’t good essays, but yeah. The man definitely has opinions.
The idea is this: in-game economies are huge and underground and are worth more than a lot of countries. These economies are based on rare in-game items (magic gatling-swords) that you can only get by playing a long long time. When people have more money than time they can pay someone else for those benefits. This gives rise to ‘gold-farming’ which is where people play the game, grinding out tasks to collect items that can then be sold for real money. This is illegal but prevalent in game worlds. The Guardian recently did a story on how Chinese labour camps are making their prisoners gold-farm.
For The Win looks at this issue as a workers’ rights issue. These gold-farmers work for bosses, playing the games and generating revenue. The big question of the book is, since these economies are so huge what happens if the workers organize? Don’t the workers have power? There’s interaction between the organizing gamers and the “real-life” unions who don’t understand how that transnational kind of organization would work, and people dismissing it all as just a game anyway. There are a lot of cool ideas in the book.
The characters are a multinational bunch and generally likable. Doctorow’s good at giving you the “villain’s” perspective as well as your heroes’. There’s a lot in there that seems like it’s in there for no reason (WeiDong going to China in a customized shipping container thing is the main thing that bugged me in that regard). The explanations of interesting social experiments to do with money and economies and envy are interesting, but I feel like I’d like them to be integrated better into the story or separated out a bit (I think Neal Stephenson and Peter Watts both do a similar sorts of thing better, often by putting the essays into endnotes or appendices).
The other completely annoying thing was the advertisements for Cory’s favourite bookstores that ended every scene for the first half to two-thirds of the book. I don’t know if those are in the paper version or just the free-to-download .epub version I got from his website, but man oh man did I hate those interruptions. That’s something that would have been fine as footnotes, but bang right in the middle of the text, just angered me.
But yeah, it’s an interesting book for the economics of it all. If you’re an economist it might frustrate you with its explanations being too simplified or something but it was pretty good for interested layperson.
Sitting in the Ultimo public library I met a man who told me he was being persecuted by the Australian government in alliance with the Chinese.
(The rest of this story is all what he told me. Obviously, I haven’t fact-checked any of it.)
When I taught English in China, I wasn’t a very good teacher. I did it though. It was a good experience, doing something I knew I was bad at, trying to get better, but not really knowing how. Me blundering along through failure for a couple of years was great for everyone. Except my students. And my self-esteem. Erm.
The thing is that when I got back to Canada and especially when I started working at a library reference desk I realized I’m not too shabby at one-on-one/small group instruction, especially when everyone is speaking the same language. It was teaching people to talk I was terrible at. But I still didn’t have a good handle on how to teach better or how to develop a lesson plan or anything like that.
So for me, my hands-down most useful class in my MLIS has been LIBR535: The Instructional Role of the Information Professional. The past couple of weeks we’ve been doing our short lessons and with actual guidance on how to do this stuff (simple guidance like “plan your lesson backwards from its objectives” and “making people physically do stuff is good because…”) I felt really good about it. And man oh man does it ever help when you’re teaching something you find interesting.
I’ve had The Other sitting on my shelf for a couple of months and just got to it. It’s a book of philosophical essays by Ryszard Kapuscinski about how people deal with people who are not like them. It’s not a rigorous philosophical treatise, but the thoughts of a journalist who’s spent most of his life off travelling the world and recounting tales of other lands (most notably in Africa and South America, which were places the censors back in Iron Curtain Poland wouldn’t censor too much about).
Reading this book made me want to go places again, to travel, but not as a tourist. To go with a mission, like anthropologists do, like a real journalist, going off to find out about people and what life is like in faraway places. Every time I go to China, I realize how hard that is.
One thing he talks about in regards to the dichotomy between Europe and the rest of the world which used to be dominated by it, is how that dichotomy was created in part because Europe’s first ambassadors to the rest of the world weren’t noble wise people. They were scummy ruffians who’d set sail because they didn’t have good lives back in Europe. They were misfits in an unromantic way, antisocial and greedy and were ready to take anything they could get from the people/creatures they encountered.
One of the most important things in this book, or at least a thing that resonated most strongly with me, was the idea of the self needing an Other to truly define it. You don’t know what you are until you are exposed to something else, the ways other people organize their lives. This kind of Other requires seeing these people in different places with different histories as still being human, so it’s actually historically quite a recent phenomenon. And one helped along by anthropologists.
It was a short book but very good. I’d probably read it before reading Travels With Herodotus if I hadn’t read any Kapuscinski before.
We’re down to our last week of classes for my first semester of my MLIS. I had planned to do more posts about the stuff I was reading as we went along, but that fell away as I was doing homework. The way our school is set up, this first semester is the core that gets people up to speed. Despite some people’s complaints about the teaching abilities of some of our profs I do feel like this term has given our cohort a common vocabulary, which’ll be useful going forward. I’m glad I’ll be getting into more details though. A bunch of our classes this term have basically been extended advertorials: “If you think this is interesting, take this class.”
In class yesterday we were discussing the professional images of librarians and the whole thing seemed like just so much jerking off. I don’t really see the point in worrying about professionalism, professional identities, professional associations and the like. One of the things I read for that class was about librarianism going from occupation to a profession, and how that’s not just about snobbery (it was written in 1961 if that makes a difference). It feels to me like it is. If you’re good at your job isn’t that way more important than worrying about the image of the profession? I’d rather represent myself according to my standards than represent “my profession” well, or get prestige from my profession being well-regarded. I mean, that’s why I try to write interesting things instead of bullshit PR flackery, right? I’m me more than I’m a member of any organization.
Anyway, I bring up this professional image stuff because in that discussion the idea of “professional acculturation” came up, which is more what school has been about so far. I haven’t learned a whole tonne that I wouldn’t be able to learn on the job. There are some resources I wasn’t aware of, and my vocabulary has become a bit more specialized and in tune with how library people write about things. On the whole though, I haven’t been really disabused of my notion that I’m a librarian already, just one without the paper that’ll let me get a job. Hence a librarianaut. Maybe in January.
But before January I’m heading to China for the month of December. I leave next week as soon as classes are done. Supposedly my girlfriend knows a woman who works at the public library in Nanchong, so hopefully I’ll get to talk about this stuff with her.
I’d been waiting to read Paolo Bacigalupi’s book The WIndup Girl for months upon months. I don’t know why exactly I was waiting. And then I found a cheap DRM-free ebook version and bought it for my trip to China. It worked perfectly.
So this is a science fiction story set in Thailand. There’s a calorieman who’s trying to figure out where this new fruit came from and there’s a windup girl who’s trying to get a better life for herself than being a sex toy at a horrible bar/whorehouse. Their stories intersect.
It felt very much like a William Gibson novel in its commingling of technologies and cool stuff going on. There’s a whole lot of political upheaval that takes place in the book, moreso than in a William Gibson novel, and the worldbuilding is neat. It’s post-oil so there are cycle-powered computers and using big animals to turn springs to store energy. There’s bioengineering of foods to survive plagues and of people. The windup girl is designed to be basically a geisha, so she’s designed to be uber refined and beautiful. This means doing stuff to her genes so she has unimaginably small pores to preserve the porcelainness of her skin. Since the rich people who’re supposed to own her would have climate control that’s not a problem. It is a problem when you’re dumped in Thailand to fend for yourself and your body can’t sweat to regulate its temperature.
It’s a good book. I think it won some awards this year [UPDATE: it won the Hugo]. I do like seeing SF that isn’t taking place in a Western future.
I’ve returned to Canada and have moved my body to Vancouver but my books are being dragged slowly behind. I’ve got a few days before I start library school so I should be able to get caught up here. There will be book reviews from the trip, plus my impressions of my (former) ereader, and I came up with an idea for a possible thesis. That should all start up again on Monday.
Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus was about one of my favourite parts of life: reading books in foreign places. When Kapuscinski was a young Polish journalist in the 1950s he expressed a desire to go abroad “perhaps to Czechoslovakia.” He was sent to India, with a parting gift of Herodtus’ Histories. So the book is about Herodotus as a role model for the traveller, and about the way it shaped Kapuscinski in his travels. He tells awesome stories about going to China during Mao’s 100 Flowers Campaign and being shut up in his room, and of being robbed in Cairo by a man he saw every day before and after the robbery. He’s talking about going to Congo and all through it he’s got his Herodotus.
A lot of the book is Kapuscinski retelling stories from the Histories and wondering about the tales. He takes a very open, anti-cynical approach to these 2500 year old stories. When Herodotus says he heard that the people up the Nile eat with their feet he takes it as a wondrous kind of thing. Not that Kapuscinski believes that’s what Africans did back in the day, but that he takes the story Herodotus presents seriously, as kind of a marvel of reporting (even if it is second or third hand).
It was a good combination of tales from different times. When I go to China in July, I’m going to bring some Herodotus with me.
In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star Paul Theroux retraces the overland journey from London through Asia he took back in the ’70s (and wrote about in the book The Great Railway Bazaar). It’s impressive. The route isn’t exactly the same (he could go through Afghanistan and Iran in the 70s but not Georgia or certain parts of Vietnam), and it’s not entirely overland (he flew into India and Japan and a couple of other short hops) but it’s still a great read.
Theroux travels differently than I have, in that he talks to people through out the trip. He’s also travelling with more money than I’ve ever done, but still. The conversations he has with people on trains and in cars throughout Asia are much more impressive than anything I’ve ever done. I mean, he chats with Prince Charles in Rajasthan, and can get invited to dinner with Orhan Pamuk, so yeah. It’s a different kind of thing.
But he also is embracing of the vagabond loafing voyeurishness that travel really is. It’s a way of life and he talks about it really well. Since this is a return journey for him, he’s comparing how it is in 2006 with how it was thirty years before. I appreciate that very much. It’s why I went to China when I did, so I’d have something to compare it with later. The bits in Turkmenistan were crazy good, talking about their (now dead) insane dictator. And he talks with sex workers in loads of different places.
Also, I had no idea this would happen, but near the end of the book he hangs out with Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan (separately). Their recounted conversations were pretty great, and kind of make up for his unbearable snobbery on the issue of comics (all of which he dismisses as vacuous unchallenging pornographic pap).
It’s interesting reading about what he didn’t like about different places like Bangalore and China. They were the places where people are making crap-tonnes of money. Here’s what he said in one of his few paragraphs about China (he came into Kunming overland from Vietnam):
“China exists in its present form because the Chinese want money. Once, America was like that. Maybe this accounted for my desire to leave. Not revulsion, but the tedium and growing irritation of listening to people express their wish for money, that they’d do anything to make it. Who wants to hear people boasting about their greed and their promiscuity? I left for Japan, reveling in the thought that I was done with China – its factory-blighted landscape, its unbreathable air, its unbudging commissars, and its honking born-again capitalists. Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant’s greedy dream of development. I was happy to leave.”
I ran a paraphrase of that by my friend who lives in China and she said “Oh dear, that makes me a little sad . . . because it’s true.” And that’s kind of what you want your travel books to do with their generalizations, right? Be at least a little bit true?
I was volunteering at the Manitoba Libraries Conference today and I learned… not a lot about library stuff. This is because I was working the registration desk in the afternoon and almost everyone had registered in the morning. I pointed people towards the rooms for their annual general meetings and stuff, but there wasn’t a lot of complex work to do. Selah.
That actually turned out great because I was working with this nearly-90-year-old guy at the desk. He was the kind of old guy who just liked to talk. He talked about victory gardens in World War 2. He talked about Henry Morgenthaler, and about the creation of the Canadian health care system. He talked about an 1100 year old bible with marginal notes written in French from some museum in London. He talked about the Mackenzie King diary and how he found the errors in the digital copies made by the National Library. He talked about his daughter giving basic law school lessons in Laos: “You see, they used to have a Napoleonic code and then the communists got rid of it all. Now that people are allowed to own things they need lawyers to teach them how contracts and wills work.”
He told a great story about a colleague of his from Finland who went to a conference in Tokyo in the early 1970s. By train. There was problem after problem with visas and all these things to get through Russia and China. Once he was on the train and they were crossing Siberia they kept on having to stop to let trains loaded with tanks pass them “on their way to the Chinese frontier.” He told me about getting kicked out of an art exhibition in Madrid because Franco’s soldiers were setting up machine guns.
He talked about the importance of early child development and how all the fundamentals we need to be able to learn are pretty much set by the time we’re three, so when those get messed with, it’s catastrophic for a society. He talked about how in Canada, the more educated you are, the cheaper your healthcare is, which is why early childhood education, “especially in our northern communities” is so important.
He’s got some chip in his car that monitors his driving habits because he’s part of a study to try and “keep old fogeys like me off the road.” He wasn’t angry about it, just talking. He’s got a little bit of old man drift to him, but you could tell he’s a smart guy. He was a doctor, now retired so he has time to be on library advisory boards. He told me about some of the rural boards where politicians get on the board to make policies and proudly proclaim “I’ve never read a book in my life!” and he’s there to try and counter that.
So yes, I didn’t do a whole lot, but got to hang out with the guy I’d like to be in 60 years.