book review: revenger

Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger is his latest space opera and it is not very good. I often pick up one of his books thinking, “Why haven’t I read one of these in a while?” I was 2% into this one when I remembered.

It’s all tell and no show. Reynolds has characters that are cardboard standups engaging in cliche actions that anyone who’s ever read or watched better science fiction will see coming a million leagues away. In some of his previous space operas I know there’ve been enough good bits that I could deal with the plodding language, but none of that is in Revenger.

I can’t recommend such a formulaic and blah space opera, not when there’s such good stuff happening in the field these days. The Stars are Legion is a zillion times better than this, as is Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (though that has more of a military sf aspect).

about my blogging now that i’m employed

Today I started my new job. I’m now a professional youth librarian who does things like works full-time and performs storytimes and will be getting a Teen Advisory Group together and all the other cool things librarians get to do if they’re lucky. I’m excited about the possibilities (and am exceedingly aware of how lucky I am to have gotten full-time work straight out of finishing my MLIS).

One thing that’s a bit different from the last time I worked in a library is that I’m not going to be blogging specifically about where I work. It’s not a secret or anything. You can easily discover it for yourself. My name is Justin Unrau and I’m out there on the internet (usually with the same avatar). But I won’t be talking about the specifics of my day to day work the way I used to back at the cheese factory. (And yes, this means no stories of awesome encounters with library members or coworkers.)

The main reason for this is because I kind of feel like my audience here (such as it is) is made up more of fellow librarchivists these days, and these people have their own awesome stories in that vein. These librarchivists haven’t necessarily read the same books that I’ve been reading, and they might have a use for my reviews (such as they are). And they might find it useful to read about libraryboxes and piracy or storytime plans and whatever. The shift in audience means a shift in content, is what I’m saying.

I’m not saying I’ll stop cussing in my book reviews here (even in reviews of kids’ books). I’ll try to keep talking about things in the greater world of information that make fine upstanding librarians squirm. That’s all good. I’m just putting up a bit of separation to make it very very clear that my new employer is not responsible for, nor do they condone, anything I write here. I might write about programs that I create in my job (or for presentations at library conferences or what have you), but the writing here is done on my own time for my own professional/personal development.

I guess the big takeaway here is that if you are here for the book reviews, awesome. Those’ll stay the same. There’ll probably be weeklyish posts about more generally library-related topics interspersed with them. If you’re here for rollicking tales of customer service interactions, this isn’t the source it used to be (and truthfully hasn’t been in years). I suggest The Society for Librarians* Who Say Motherfucker if you are so inclined (though it does seem much more petty than I feel it used to be).

Anyway, now that I’m not jobhunting I hope to make the blog better. I’ve got plans for zine workshops, lego, science fiction and circuit-bending and I’ll share them with you. I’m going to try to make my book reviews a bit more helpful too. Thanks for reading.

Pirates on Display by Justin Unrau cc-by-nc-sa-3.0

your friendly neighbourhood wretched hive of scum & villainy – a presentation

This is a slightly modified version of the text (and slides) from my talk at Oh, the Places You’ll Know, a part of SFU’s Public Square on September 19, 2012. We were encouraged to put practical considerations aside, hence the “damn the lawyers; full speed ahead!” approach advocated within.

My big idea for public libraries is that they should embrace the role of “Your Friendly Neighbourhood Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy.”

To begin, and to situate us here, I agree with R. David Lankes when he says “the mission of librarians is to facilitate knowledge creation in their communities.” That’s a great mission, but I think it is very easy for us to mis-define our communities. I want my library (and this is a hypothetical library – I’m not representing anyone’s views but my own here) to serve the community it’s in and not the rules of publishers, movie studios or lawmakers.

In short,

Pirates on Display by Justin Unrau cc-by-nc-sa-3.0

I want librarians to talk like pirates. See, September 19th is “internet traditionally” known as International Talk Like a Pirate day. It’s a stupid internet thing, but I couldn’t pass up the connection. I want libraries to make it easier to share all sorts of electronic content and integrate better with how people actually use the internet. And that includes breaking all sorts of rules.

I’ll be talking about collections, programming and philosophy for the next four minutes.

PirateBoxPark1 by David Darts cc-by-nc-sa-3.0

First we’ve got the plunder of libraries, our collections. When we talk piracy I mean I want libraries to buy material and then share it as widely as possible instead of treating digital content like it’s physical. This is the kind of behaviour that content-providers don’t want from us so we are saddled with 26-checkouts-then-self-destruct kinds of ebooks or 3 downloaded songs per week. I want us to buy ebooks and crack the DRM on them so they can be used on any device. When we buy CDs/DVDs/Blu-Rays I want us to rip them to hard-drive arrays and seed the torrents ourselves. If we’re serious about “facilitating knowledge creation,” giving away electronic files is way more useful than making them hard to use.

The picture here is of a PirateBox and a model of what I want libraries to encourage. In that PirateBox is a battery-powered WiFi router (you can see the antenna on the right) and a USB stick full of download-only media (there’s also the more library-specific project based on the Pirate Box called LibraryBox which is what my project would be more directly based on). You can put that anywhere and someone can connect to its network and get information, connecting local space with electronic content. I love these things. They’re the electronic equivalent of Little Free Libraries.

Place to go by leg0fenris, on Flickr cc-by-nc-nd-2.0

But we’re here to talk about community. One of the things about internet media piracy is the isolation aspect of it. We know we’re not supposed to be downloading complete seasons of Clone Wars and feel a little ashamed, doing it by ourselves in the dark.

When I show people how easy it is to make their Kindle books readable on a Kobo, or strip the stuff from digital library content that returns it, people are amazed. We’re taught that we have to follow the rules, but when you talk about breaking the rules, you’re engaging people with a different kind of illicit connection.

I want the library to be a place where you can talk about this stuff freely, that it’s not some back-alley of information usage you should never mention to a fine upstanding librarian. I want librarians who are comfortable with 4chan and torrenting and can help their community members navigate some of those parts of the internet to have some fun or learn something or bring down an evil empire.

And here I like the parallel to sex education. You can teach a pirated media abstinence only policy and let your members pick up their knowledge piecemeal (from downloading porn and getting viruses), or you can say “downloading TV shows is fun, and here’s how to do it safely, thoughtfully and have a better experience.”

So my library project does programs teaching people about the processes and ethics of seeding and leeching torrents, about how to use Tor to hide what exactly you’re doing from people who might be of a mind to prosecute you, and using VPNs to get around location restrictions so we can watch shows on Hulu in Canada goddamnit.

Because I love the PirateBox thing we’d run workshops on how to build them and share their own content (stuff they’ve stolen or created themselves) outside of the library ecosystem. Because really, libraries aren’t the point here. We’re trying to facilitate knowledge creation, not pump up our circulation stats.

Highway 61 Re-Revisited by nekosoft, on Flickr cc-by-nc-sa-2.0

Establishing trust within your community that being an outlaw doesn’t make you a bad person plays into the whole idea that to live outside the law you must be honest. (I couldn’t find a Lego version of the Blonde on Blonde album cover, sorry.)

When we teach our community about those tools people use to engage in piracy we also get to talk about intellectual property rights and why people do Creative Commons and privacy and all that good Electronic Frontier Foundation stuff. We get to discuss the difference between giving money to record labels versus supporting local artists. And we get to do this not from a position of on-high false moral rectitude but from down in the muck, in a “we’re all in this together” kind of way. Loads of people aren’t going to buy media anyway, but that doesn’t mean the library can’t be a place to get them to share their knowledge.

Crushed by the empires elite by leg0fenris, on Flickr cc-by-nc-nd-2.0 / Han shot first by leg0fenris, on Flickr cc-by-nc-nd-2.0

So our final choice is to let people be bound by terrible rules *koff koff Access Copyright* enforced by publishing empires or we can become outlaws. At the opening gala last night Larry Beasley talked about how the law is a manifestation of us and we should be crafting new laws to build what we want.

I think librarians should be allying themselves with the upstarts in their seedy cantinas who might do some crappy things and occasionally shoot first, but end up changing the galaxy.

Thank you very much.

book review: the pirates! in an adventure with whaling

My friend Jamie had recently told me about the Pirates! In An Adventure With… series. While I couldn’t find An Adventure With Scientists at the library when I remembered it the other day, I did find The Pirates! in an Adventure with Whaling (aka in an Adventure with Ahab), and I do love me some Moby Dick, so off I went.

The basic plot of the story is there are a bunch of pirates (known as The Pirate in Red, or The Pirate Captain or The Pirate With a Hook for a Hand) and they need a new ship. They go to Nantucket and buy a huge fancy one on credit (in order not to look silly in front of the Pirate Captain’s archnemesis) but then they need to raise the money to make the payments. So they sail to Las Vegas and try to do a variety show, and then they try a few other things (including actual piracy) before they turn their hands to whaling so they can get the reward Ahab has posted.

That summary only glances on the funniness of the book. It’s very Terry Pratchett-esque and doesn’t really have too much respect for reality in any form. It’s a light funny story (and in a small package, too – the hardcover book fits in a not-unreasonable-sized pocket) and I’ll gladly read more in the series.

book review: close quarters (the losers vol. 4)

Close Quarters is the fourth book in Andy Diggle and Jock’s The Losers series. While the previous volume was side trips and flashbacks, this book is straight up Cayman bank heists (in England), motorcycle chases and stealing helicopters in the process of high-seas plutonium piracy. Have I mentioned what a fun book this is? It’s like the A-Team but not nearly so dumb. I have nothing more to add.

book review: pinball 1973

I’m not entirely proud of how I got my copy of Haruki Murakami’s Pinball 1973. I found a pirated translation in the geocities archive. So I downloaded it and put it on my ereader and felt bad. But. It’s not available to buy in English anywhere but Japan in a version that was created for Japanese learners of English. Murakami has said that he’s not interested in his crappy immature work being translated for international audiences. So a copy of that English version of Pinball 1973 (and his very first novel Hear the Wind Sing) is something I’d been keeping my eyes open for for ages, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend over $100 on a copy. This was a free PDF with the attendant formatting issues, but because it’s ripped from the Kodansha student edition of the book, it’s an Alfred Birnbaum translation (not some amateur’s), so that’s good.

(Note: If you ever want to buy me a present I’ll cherish forever, get me signed/rare copies of books that I love that are too expensive to justify buying for myself, since I have a copy of the work already. See what I did there? I differentiated between a FRBR work and an item. I’ve learned something in this semester of library school.)

Anyway, Pinball 1973 is about the boku narrator from A Wild Sheep Chase (and Dance Dance Dance) and his friend the Rat (just a name). It’s very loose and non-plottish. The narrator is living with indistinguishable twins and generally feeling like his life is aimless. The bit of plot comes from him trying to find a pinball machine of the type he played a few years before, but that quest is barely there at all. The whole thing is much more of a mood piece.

It definitely feels like a warmup to A Wild Sheep Chase. You can see all the Murakami-isms taking shape and it feels familiar but sketchy. Nothing’s as stab you in the heart awesome as his later work, but it’s Murakami that I hadn’t read before, so how could I dislike it?