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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.

tic

transmitting in cleartext #accessyfc

tic

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.

Plaintext?

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

Anyway.

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.

clarity

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).

obliquity

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.

book review: countdown city

It’s 77 days until an asteroid hits earth, and Henry Palace’s long-ago babysitter’s husband has gone missing. Henry Palace isn’t a police officer any more, but he agrees to help. This is the story of Countdown City, sequel to Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman.

It’s a good little mystery novel. Even though the asteroid is more imminent than in the previous book, it feels like it means less. You can tell the world has changed. Fewer people are trying to hold things together so though Palace’s investigation has smaller stakes there’s more danger to it.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the very end of the book, but that’s probably because I am very far from being true police. It’s a good story but not as Wow-inducing as the previous one. C’est la vie.

book review: dark inside

Dark Inside is Jeyn Roberts’ multi-perspective YA novel about a kind of apocalyptic event that happens after a huge earthquake hits North America’s west coast. Cities are destroyed, yes, but a kind of evil is unleashed, not just at the earthquake site but in everyone’s souls. The book follows a scattered bunch of teenagers as they try to deal with the end of the world.

The book feels like a zombie book, since everyone aside from our protagonists has changed into bloodthirsty terrible murderers, but they haven’t gone brainless, just embraced their inner evil. This evil inside everyone is left pretty nebulous, as is the reason why the characters we’re following are spared it. The people who have turned (so most of the population) are terrible and terrifying, and some of the scenes are pretty intense. It would make for the kind of movie I couldn’t really watch, myself.

The teens are all eventually converging on Vancouver for various reasons (looking for a lost brother, keeping a promise to someone met on the road from Saskatoon, that kind of thing) and there are plenty of good scenes on the way. People feel survivor guilt and show survival skills and all in all it’s pretty good. And props to the book having interesting First Nations characters who didn’t feel like stereotypes. They weren’t the main characters but they were there, doing stuff like the rest of the kids with their own specific problems and issues.

book review: the sixth gun (vol. 1 & 2)

My librarian friend Jamie picked up the first two volumes of The Sixth Gun on a whim recently and recommended I read them. Very glad I did. They’re set just after the American Civil War and the titular guns are basically forged in hell demon weapons that are bound to their wielders.

In Cold Dead Fingers we meet Drake, our badass antihero who’s been hired to look for the guns. The last owner of one of them (the one that let the wielder see the future) had been killed and hidden on sacred ground, but his old posse (with guns that spout hellfire, or plague, or grant eternal youth, or summon golem armies from the people they kill) kill all the priests and dig him out. The future-glimpsing gun gets bonded to the daughter of a preacher who’d been hiding it. Lots of crazy action happens, culminating in Drake being bound to the other four guns.

The second volume, Crossroads, has Drake down in the swamplands looking for information about the guns and what to do with them. There we discover what a magnet for trouble weapons forged by the devil are and how vodoun spirits would also like to get their (metaphorical) hands on such things. More crazy action happens.

These books have an excellent melding of crazy action, magickal weirdness and characters you care about. Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt (both of which do sound like fake names) are telling a pulpy tale that’s worth following, especially if you’re a fan of the Weird West (and stuff like Deadlands) like I am.

book review: supergod

Supergod is the story a British scientist tells of how the world was destroyed by nations putting their trust in hugely powerful beings who can fly. It’s an interesting read for the ideas and the pictures of superbeings reshaping the world.

There aren’t really any characters to get attached to apart from the narrator, who basically takes the place of Uncle Warren telling creepy tales of mushroom sex and soviet robots. Also, because it’s a Warren Ellis comic, of course the British space program plays into the story.

It’s a different take on superhumans than something like Black Summer; a much bigger picture story, and one that highlights how badly people would really deal with that kind of thing.

book review: maelstrom

Maelstrom is Peter Watts’ sequel to Starfish. I thought it was better. I thought it was pretty fucking excellent in fact, (though Blindsight is still better).

All day today I’ve been absorbing the Twitterfeeds about the Fukushima nuclear crisis. One of the characters in Maelstrom, Desjardins, is a person who deals with those kinds of crises, by using statistics and analysis in the name of the greater good to determine when to quarantine something and say “this is beyond saving.” Desjardins’ is chemically wired up to be really good at pattern-analysis and is also unable to be corrupt in his decisions, through manipulations of the chemical components of guilt. One of the things I fucking love about Peter Watts books is waiting for the References section at the end to see how much of the science is true, how much might be true and how much is “Well it’s kind of like this but cranked up to 11.”

Two of the rifters (undersea adapted cyborgs) return from Starfish and there’s an apocalypse coming to the planet. One of the rifters is the harbinger for it. The awesome thing about Watts’ writing is that the whole situation is so bleak, everything is looked at so clinically (guilt is just chemicals, humans evolved to be able to handle quite a lot of sexual trauma, intelligence doesn’t mean a goddamned thing) you’re actually rooting for apocalypse. It’s amazing how well it works.