book review: leviathan wakes

I don’t really need more television in my life at the moment (we’re currently watching the third season of Fargo and chugging through Angel) but there’s a space opera show on SyFy called The Expanse. I’ve been hearing good things about it, and huzzah it’s based on a book series by James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham). I have way more room in my life for more books than more TV, so here we go.

Leviathan Wakes is the first book in The Expanse. It’s got a couple of viewpoint characters: Holden and Miller. Miller is a detective on Ceres, and Holden starts off as the executive officer on an ice-hauling spacecraft. Things happen and soon the solar system is engulfed in war while these two are trying to do something about it.

It’s a good book. I enjoyed the politics, and the Firefly-esque nature of the ship-bound stuff. A lot more characters died than I expected, and the only alien in the book was pretty intense. I appreciated the consequences that radiation poisoning had on characters, even though they could get most of their organs regrown. It didn’t blow my mind, but it was very well executed. The plot kept the problem-solution-escalation dance spinning nicely and the bouncing between viewpoints kept me reading.

book review: twisty little passages

Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction is a nonfiction book about text adventure computer games by Nick Montfort. I picked it up to read for a program I did at work on digital storytelling. The ILL didn’t come in time for the program but no one came to the program anyway so it wasn’t a big deal.

The book was about the history and some of the artistic merit behind text adventure gaming, not the point-and-click stuff like the classic Sierra games I grew up playing with my buddy, but the ones where you’re given some text and you type some text and if you type the right thing you get further into the game, like Zork (although Zork isn’t depicted with as much reverence in the book as I had naively expected). The first game that started this form was called Adventure and was about exploring caves and solving puzzles with a randomly appearing pirate messing with you. Now they’re more complex.

The book was written about 10 years ago so my further research shows that some of the languages and tools used to create this stuff have moved on. It’s an intriguing enough topic that I’m doing the further research. We’ll see if the fiction I’ve been writing might work better in this weird little form.

book review: cyber-proletariat

If you are interested in how technology and capitalism and workers and consumption all interact, I’d suggest picking up Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex. I got it as an interlibrary loan because of Sam Popowich talking about it on Twitter, and I found it insightful and not overly-academic. (Because I guess I don’t think of myself as a particularly rigorous thinker? I get a little intimidated talking about stuff like Marxism and critical theory around actual scholars.) Review-wise, I’d just suggest reading Sam’s text above.

I will be returning to the book because I am interested in how to apply the insights he displays in my work. A lot of what I do in my job is teach digital literacy, which practically amounts to helping people figure out how to navigate the settings app on their iPads or unfriend an annoying relative on Facebook. Helping people build up the skills to be able to do things the way digital capitalism expects them to. I often find myself teaching people how to think like the machine, and I get frustrated when they can’t or won’t.

But on reflection, and in reading something like Cyber-Proletariat, I get even more frustrated with myself that I’m not helping resist this stuff instead. Instead, I lament the state of the world and the insecurity of all things while chucking senior citizens into the volcano from my slightly more protected ad-blockery vantage point.

Enjoy Arby’s.

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book review: the right to be cold

I get to do some collection development in my new job and my main area I’m dealing with is Adult NonFiction ebooks. It’s kind of fun to do that slightly more traditional library role (most collection development at my old library was outsourced to the company LibraryBound, who decided what users like ours wanted and then sold the materials to us). Now I get to actually scour lists and say “this would be something good for our community!” And then because of that I’m caring a bit more about things like awards and buzz and Canada Reads. This year I’m planning to read most of the Canada Reads shortlist and started with Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet (which our library already owned in ebook format so I didn’t get to heroically buy it for our users).

Sadly, I didn’t really like this book. It has interesting content, and talks about how southerners tend to care more about the animals that live in northern Canada than the people. Watt-Cloutier’s stories of growing up Inuk were great. Her discussion of how climate change makes this region unpredictable, which has deadly results was great and changes the way I’m thinking about icepack.

The problem was that much of the latter part of the book was written like a retirement speech. “I tried to do this. There was this obstacle. This person helped and said this nice thing about me.” I feel bad complaining about the aesthetics of a book that had important content, but it made it a chore, like reading a very boring corporate report.

So I don’t know if I would recommend the book, simply because reading it felt so much like an “eat your vegetables” kind of task.

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book review: the triumph of human empire

I’m reading more nonfiction this year and stuff like The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams is why. I mean, this is a good justification for the trend unlike the dopey baseball book I also just read (but that gave me the difference between a 2-seam and a cut fastball in a way that feels like it’ll stick, so maybe I’m too harsh).

Williams compares the writing and other work by Jules Verne, William Morris and Robert Louis Stevenson with the frame of how the three felt about and responded to the massive shift in how the world worked at the end of the 19th century when Earth’s maps were getting filled in and human empire was everywhere. Williams argues that these writers were sensitive to the idea that the imperial west and its technology was now on its way to pushing up against each other more and more and relying on interconnections and brutality in dealing with those connections. Density was going to build and things were going to get much more complicated and these three wanted to resist the way things were going. Williams doesn’t make them unvarnished heroes or anything; they were still privileged white dudes and were racist and sexist and otherwise problematic in their own ways, especially in regards to colonialism.

The idea that we’re now in a similar kind of era, when we’re anxious about the end of the world through climate change and that it’s something we caused because we couldn’t stop digging coal out of the ground so we could cross huge distances easily, made the whole thing hang together really well. It’s clearly written and doesn’t plod. It’s also nice to have words for some of what I love about Verne and science fiction in general (the distancing mechanisms for the heroes in his geographic romances). I didn’t know as much about Morris or Stevenson, but I was glad to learn.

I had to get this as an interlibrary loan, because our public library doesn’t seem to grab random University of Chicago Press books, but hooray for the interconnected apocalypse we live in where it was possible to snag.

transmitting in cleartext #accessyfc


This is the text of a short Ignite talk I gave at the Access Conference in 2016. Ignite format is 5 minutes with auto-advancing slides every 15 seconds, so that’s why it’s got the lack of detail it does. I might link to a video version of this talk at some point too, ’cause otherwise the mad prophet aspect might get a little lost. In the meantime, please enjoy.

Hi everyone. I’m J Jack Unrau.

I don’t code much but I spend loads of my time on a public library info desk doing community tech support and talking about digital privacy, which is what I’m here for today.

just a bunch of hilarious stuff

Having been a children’s librarian and radio-based reading advisor, I feel well-equipped to tell you a story about what it means to me to teach people how to deal with the cyberpunk dystopia we have the fortune to be living in.

libr*folk get people hacked

Do you remember 2013 when a huge list of IDs and passwords were stolen from Adobe, including all the accounts librarians had made people get so they could read Overdrive ebooks?

It was terrible explaining to people what happened, & not just because it was our fault.

inigo montoya line (not that bit, the other one)

Adobe was storing passwords in poorly encrypted fashion and transmitting them in cleartext.

Or plaintext.


Shoot, which is for vim and which is about encryption again?


The words cleartext and plaintext got bandied about a bunch.

escape from efrafa

In the wake of this breach, our library’s agitated techy public services librarians, like Emily Orr, got a notification posted and warned people to change their passwords.

And then we fell down the rabbithole of translating what cleartext means to plainspoken people.


Because it’s kind of counter-intuitive.

We usually want people who aren’t making some artistic statement to be clear communicators.

We want to get to the point in 300 seconds.

We want to communicate plainly and simply.

We want to tell our stories so we’re understood.

the opposite of clarity

When we’re teaching encryption and security, though, we’re promoting the value of obfuscation and complication.

No matter how much we say “You don’t do this because you have something to hide! It’s not just for pornographers” it’s still weird.

library freedom project

Some smart public-oriented folk have been working on this education project: teaching people what it means to encrypt for your security and liberty.

Alison Macrina‘s founding work on the Library Freedom Project is hugely important and useful.

They are showing us a path to teach these skills to our users.

So what are we doing with those resources?

we do what we must because we can

I teach monthly classes on electronic privacy (that are sparsely attended).

In these sessions we talk about governments and corporations and other thieves, what they want with people’s data, things they will do to get it, and what people can do to try and protect themselves.

using tech better will save us!

I explain digital rights management to our senior citizens.

For Freedom to Read Week a teen and his mom and I built a Tor router from a Raspberry Pi.

I’m doing my part to inch people along the path to looking after their security, to knowing why transmitting in cleartext is so bad.

but it won’t

However, this is not a “we done good” story.

This is a story set in 2016, after all.

This is ending in an apocalyptic trash fire.

normalizing technocracy

The world we inhabit is one where you can have all sorts of digital freedom if you know how to code, navigate pirated media repositories, blocklist the cesspools of Twitter, or run a VPN around Netflix / a repressive regime.

everyone loves setec astronomy

This world is made for people like me.

Doing what I do makes me feel good about “fixing” our users.

I love my secret arcane knowledge and I love sharing that secret arcane knowledge to help technophobes understand what I love about these tools.

we don’t need more technologists

But that makes the story about people like us.

Our goal can’t be to make the public more like us.

Doing this education stuff feels more and more like sharing tips from the lucky times the techy scouts weren’t squashed by the giants out ravaging.

earning freedom is bullshit

Teaching special tech tricks to fix our special users – the ones who ask for the knowledge, come to the classes – that isn’t enough.

That lets things get worse and worse for those who have more important things to do than taking a class on Facebook privacy settings (like Facebook chatting with their kid three timezones away).


I’m an info-desk librarian.

I love helping people directly.

Communicating clearly about this stuff to a few people at a time feels good, but isn’t efficient.

The **most important** thing I’ve done for our users is harass IT into installing Privacy Badger on our public computers.

can we build it?

Users need tools for a default experience that is better for them than what fresh surveillance machines from BestBuy can do.

Maybe with Calibre and DeDRM plugins and LibraryBoxen and VPNs and adblockers for everyone we could make libraries have people’s backs even if they have no tech skills.

probably not

I get that there are economic concerns and political concerns in libraries and society that have grim answers for “why don’t we just…?” kinds of questions.

They’re the giants trampling the countryside, the 6th and 7th suns, all that apocalyptic stuff we can’t affect while we scurry among the shitty policies.

we’re doomed. now what?

Roy Scranton wrote this essay last year about how we can’t look to technology or politics to save us from climate change and the end of western civilization.

We have to learn how to remember and let go.

For me, sharing stories is the remembering value we’re adding.

uplifting dénouement missing

I guess I’m just saying teaching digital privacy classes gives us and our users practice at sharing the ransomware folktales we’ll someday tell huddled round our trashcan fires.

Which wasn’t what I expected, but I think it still has value.

Thanks. No moral.

The Problem With Censorship is XXXXXXX by Cory Doctorow Shred under a CC-BY-SA2.0 License

my “censorship & kidslit” talk @ VIU

I was asked to talk to an English Class at Vancouver Island University this week. They’re doing Topics in Children’s Literature and their topic is censorship. I had a really good time, even if I didn’t hit the basic information as much as I could have. I probably should have talked more about policies and how book challenges actually get processed at a public library. Instead I focused on what I see as the interesting tension between Access and Inclusion. Here’s my script, which I didn’t follow exactly. It is not as rigorous as it could be, and follows my idiosyncratic views rather than trying to speak for all librarians. Selah. (I’ve excised the “who I am” bit since you’re on my blog here.)

First off, apologies for cussing. I am very good at holding my tongue with knee-high audiences, but figure we’re all adults here.

When you become a librarian and think about censorship there’s this idealized notion that what will happen is some mob will arrive at your door to burn all your Calvin & Hobbes books and you get to heroically defend the innocent singlehandedly, the lone purveyor of truth and wisdom in a world of bookburning KKK wannabes who hate the idea of children being human.

That is not how it usually plays out. Mostly it’s more complicated and boring than that. Part of the reason it gets complicated is because a public library is supposed to be welcoming to everyone, and because of that we don’t just deal with books as idealized objects but also with people.

  • your reading addresses how that can be co-opted
  • dang I hate safelibraries [which was a big part of the assigned reading -jju]

Just to situate ourselves here, in my view librarianly ethics – and that’s what censorship issues come down to – come down to Intellectual Freedom, Privacy, and Access to Knowledge. Those apply to academic libraries & public libraries, collections (stuff we have in the library) & programs (the stuff we do in the library).

Let me tell a story. A dad comes in. He asks to talk to a librarian about a book he was reading with his son that he felt was inappropriate. It was a Batwoman comic that depicted a (very PG-13) lesbian love scene in a montagey kind of flashback. “How did this get into the children’s area?” was his main question. And in my experience (in 21st-century Canadian public libraries) that’s how censorship issues come up.

We can come back to that later if you want. [We didn’t. Sorry. -jju]

When it comes to collections I tend towards celebrating the old saying “there’s something in the library to offend everyone” and “the best answer to bad speech is more speech.” This isn’t the approach that every member of the public wants out of their library, especially when it comes to their kids.

Now here’s the problem with library collections. We only have limited budgets. We can’t buy everything. But there’s so much product out there – not necessarily literature but product, especially in kidslit. So much of it is so shitty. We buy bullshit Barbie paperbacks and they circ like nobody’s business. Anything made by a gigantic corporation is not going to be offensive to the SafeLibraries folk. It supports the overcultural domination and well yeah. And we buy that shit all the time.

And here’s another secret: in a lot of library systems including ours librarians don’t select the books. It’s all outsourced, which is bullshit. We basically just get whatever our salespeople think we need, which means whatever they get cheaply.

The interesting stuff happens, like with anything when it’s a bit less about the corporately produced bullshit. There’s tonnes of boring bullshit out there. And yes we have it in the library. Claims (like the SafeLibraries blog mentioned in your reading) that there is somehow more genderqueer stuff in the teen section than monoculture hegemony enforcement is totally untrue.

But. There’s room to think otherwise, and that’s down to how people interact with the collection and what we librarians prefer to talk up.

Librarians don’t get jazzed about things unless they’re awesome or terrible but we’re filled with mediocrity. We love to talk about the picturebook about the penguin with two daddies and how important a YA story about nerds who are overweight and Asian-American and in love is for readers. The mediocrity surrounds those stories, engulfs them, but when a reader finds something to connect to, that speaks to their circumstances, that says “You are a real person” that is so important. We need to have all sorts of stories in the public library because this is where readers with no money and no voting power can find the information they need.

We’re never going to not have any goddamned James Patterson (whose machine also writes for kids). Our culture is designed to manufacture lowest common denominator product instead of art. You can see that in all the knockoffs of amazing books that become a trend. Yeah the Hunger Games are violent but they’re also deeply about agency in a world that hates you. Knockoffs take the surface elements and try to make more cash off them.

There is room in public library collections for books that treats sex among young people like a thing that happens and explores different points of view than the white cis-het hegemony. Basically to the SafeLibraries dude who is all outraged that there is material that offends them in the library I respond in the “You have an entire culture and the discriminating force of the state behind you. Chill the fuck out.”

For me what makes these discussions interesting and kind of unique in the public library context is the intersection between the book and the community of users. One of the most obvious ways that happens is less about what is in the collection as what a librarian chooses to highlight, especially in our programming like storytime. So, let’s do some storytime.

cover of the picture book I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen featuring a bear who is not wearing a hat.Here we read I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

You can see why that story is awesome, but there’s also – every time you read it in a storytime – the option to sanitize it. You leave out that last page and it’s just cute. Keep it in and it’s amazing. I love this book because it’s introducing the preschool set to noir fiction and ends justifying means and the grim realities of justice. Finding out about reality and different perceptions of that reality through the safety of words (and pictures) on a page is the whole goddamned point of reading. No one challenges I Want My Hat Back saying it shouldn’t be in the library, but every time I do it in storytime there’s a murmur among the adults about how that isn’t quite as cute as it started out.

There are tonnes of stories that are awesome but when you put them into a context they get inappropriate. A couple of months ago I read a story called The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer to an aboriginal class because I love the art and the flipping of the villains of the story. But it has these robbers ending up by kidnapping a bunch of kids and building a shining city for them which in the context of residential schools and truth and reconciliation and all of this stuff well ack! what am I doing? This is blundering into dangerous territory!

And then there are things like Tintin in the Congo where the depictions of Africans are racist as hell (although not as bad as they were in the original edition), or Tintin in America with its “redskins” and “savages” and headdresses. What do we do with that? Do we remove these stories from the collection so we don’t run into the danger of offense?

For me at least – and everyone’s boundaries are different – the craft of Hergé means you can’t throw that out. You need that in the collection. Now, I grant that you don’t need some white comics nerd forcing Hergé down the throat of your residential school survivor grandmother, but it has to be available and accessible for the people who do want to read it. Context is hugely important, and discussing why that was acceptable language at one time but not now is important.

Now, our library system has taken the view that parents can’t be trusted to do that contextual thing themselves, so Tintin in America (and the Congo) was removed from the kids’ collection where all the other Tintin books live and put into the adult nonfiction collection. That reclassification turns it from a story into an artifact of racism.

I don’t agree with this because (again, in my opinion, and let’s take it as granted that I tend towards the intellectual freedom maximalist end of the spectrum) it violates the librarianly ethic of access.

I’m on the side of the reader and moving things so readers can’t access them and having to ask the scary bearded dude at the desk is a form of preventing access for loads of people, not just kids. My view is that words are words and we can’t prevent people from having access to dangerous ideas just because they’re young. The library has to be a safe place to explore unsafe ideas.

But that’s my opinion. Librarians also argue that having racist material in the library makes it an unwelcoming place, an unsafe place like the rest of our settler society, and that inclusion has to be more of a concern that privileged white intellectual freedom nerds make it. I’m not having that language hurled at me with intent to dehumanize, so my claims it should be in the library could be taken to mean I value free speech more than actual people.

In my view that’s where the collection and the programming have different roles. I try to lean more on the side of inclusion and sensitivity when it comes to doing things in the library, and intellectual freedom when it comes to materials in the library.

I’m talking about this because this is where the tension is, not because I’m right or providing some cautionary example or whatever. It is just not as simple as people banning books because they say “fuck” in them or whatever, and that’s what I hope you get out of this.

Lastly, I’ve just got to put in my plug for my third ethic. To explore dangerous ideas safely you need to be able to do it privately, which is why when kids ask for information I damned well find them for them. You don’t ask for a parent’s permission even if it is an 11-year-old looking for Mein Kampf. That’s what our ethics of supporting Access to Knowledge, Intellectual Freedom, and Privacy come down to.


The post-talk discussion went into some interesting places including how the class had already talked about the continuum of where students are at, and triggers, and the guerrilla tactics groups can use to manipulate the public library to keep books they don’t like out of circulation without issuing formal challenges. It was a good time.