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Peter Heller is the author of a finely crafted, deeply melancholy, but -- against type! -- hopeful post-apocalyptic novel The Dog Stars, published to wide and well-deserved acclaim in 2012. Heller was at Diesel Books in Oakland last month to read from the newly-released paperback of his second work of fiction, The Painter, where I met and spoke to him as his audience arrived.

Because he asked (another Diesel Books regular having already told him I am a writer), I described my forthcoming novel Consequence, and in the course of our conversation I categorized it as "pre-apocalyptic fiction." The concept seemed to intrigue Heller, and when I described my book's focus on a community of San Francisco activists organizing against the proliferation of genetically-engineered agriculture he told me about a book he recently blurbed: John Vaillant's The Jaguar's Children. I put it in my queue immediately.

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Even in 2015, the public doesn't trust scientists, according to Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science. His article appeared in the Washington Post a couple weeks back, and the author isn't going where you might imagine if you just glance at his title.

The setup is textbook: Progressive-seeming Hyperbole 101 ...

America risks drifting into a new Age of Ignorance. Even as science makes unparalleled advances in genomics to oceanography, science deniers are on the march — and they’re winning hearts and minds more successfully than the academic experts whose work they deride and undermine.
About four paragraphs in, Lynas shows his hand:
But for the general public, the strongest anti-science attitudes relate to genetically modified foods. Eighty-eight percent of AAAS scientists say it’s safe to eat genetically modified food, compared to just 37 percent of U.S. adults. Such discrepancies do not happen by accident. In most cases, there are determined lobbies working to undermine public understanding of science: from anti-vaccine campaigners, to creationists, to climate-change deniers.

These activist groups have been especially successful in undermining public understanding of just how united the scientific community is on many of these issues. The polling data shows that two-thirds of the public (67 percent) thinks that “scientists do not have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM crops.” And 37 percent of the public says scientists “do not generally agree that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity.”

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science has a mission: to "increase access to agricultural innovations through collaboration and innovative communications." In pursuit of this mission, the organization aims to:
Build a significant global alliance of partners who believe in the common mission of solving complex global hunger issues by leveraging advances in agriculture including the creative tools and insights biotechnology can offer.
That is to say, they're a well-financed PR machine for biotech agriculture, posing as a disinterested, objective, squeaky-priestly-clean booster club. For Scientists. With a capital ess.

(More below the squiggle...)

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I stopped by Wheeler Hall this evening, crossing from the NW corner of the Berkeley campus where I work to look in on the building occupation that began yesterday evening, following a UC Regents committee vote to hold students hostage in a war between California Governor Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano (who is also a former governor of Arizona, 2003-2009; and former head of the Department of Homeland Security, 2009-2013). It's a war of Titans (remember Cronus, the leader of the Titans? the one who ate his children?).

Here's how the L.A. Times told the story on Tuesday, in an editorial titled A battle for UC's soul:

At issue is whether the 10-campus system will continue to rank among the nation's premier research universities, drawing top students and the best professors from throughout the world, or whether it will slowly shrink its ambitions, becoming a more utilitarian institution that concentrates narrowly on moving students to their bachelor's degrees and into the workforce quickly and efficiently.

UC President Janet Napolitano says that she will ask the Board of Regents to approve the tuition increases Wednesday, although they would not have to go into effect if the the state provides better funding. Gov.  Jerry Brown, who opposes the tuition hikes, points out that he is already planning on increasing the state's contribution 4% a year over the next two years, though he wants to tie those increases to some major changes. Among his suggestions: more online courses, heavier teaching loads for professors, reductions in nonessential research, the admission of a smaller proportion of freshmen and more community college transfers, so that the state can educate college students more inexpensively for their first two years.

The editorial goes on to lay out:
It then concludes with support for UC President Napolitano's plan to hold students feet to the fire until the state coughs up funding to maintain its preeminent public university system.

Ouch.

Students bussed in from all ten UC campuses to protest adoption of this plan to hold them hostage, but the UC Regents committee charged with making the decision voted on Wednesday to make Napolitano's threat real (the full board ratified the committee's decision today). Last night, seeing the writing on the wall, Berkeley students began an ongoing occupation of Wheeler Hall in the heart of the campus; students at UC Santa Cruz are occupying the Humanities 2 building; CNN is also reporting protests at UC Davis and UCLA. Photos are being tweeted from around the state hashtagged #fightthehike.

My read: this is going to be a complicated conflict to narrate through the filter of mainstream media. There are no clear heroes or villains. Governor Brown wants to fight tuition hikes, but he wants to do it by turning California's higher ed treasure into a diploma mill. UC Pres. Napolitano wants to preserve the value of the university she heads, but she's prepared to throw students off the cliff to get her way (not to mention that her moral authority to lead UC is worse than questionable, as students across the state have been arguing ... since her appointment to the role).

In the wake of Germany's decision to offer free university education to all -- even international students -- I'd like to see UC students call for the same here in California. Do I think that's an achievable demand? Not in the near term. But it calls for a remaking of the world as we have come to know it, and that's what these times call for.

Longtime Kossack Don Mikulecky quoted Peter Kropotkin in a thoughtfully angry (and underappreciated) diary yesterday:

Think about what kind of society you want to live in and then demand that your teachers teach you how to build that society.
Right on the mark...







This diary is cross-posted from the author's blog, One Finger Typing

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There's no getting around the record: protesters and police have a long and storied history of conflict in these United States.

A few U.S. highlights: the May 3rd workers' rally in Chicago in 1886 that preceded the next day's Haymarket massacre; the 1965 civil rights march out of Selma known as "Bloody Sunday"; the Democratic National Convention of 1968; Seattle's WTO protests in 1999; the Occupy melees of 2011, most notably in Oakland, California ... and then there's last month's militarized suppression of protest in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Via a headline story in the SF Chronicle, recent events in Ferguson surfaced ongoing research at UC Berkeley -- the Deciding Force Project -- in which sociologists have begun to use cutting edge data mining techniques to analyze police-protester interactions, and identify circumstances and tactics that lead to violent conflict. According to the article, the objective of this research is to reduce such violence, to the degree conscious and well-informed decisions on the part of police and of protesters can defuse volatile situations.

Let's say that the Deciding Force Project is successful in identifying ways to keep protest from boiling over into violent conflict. And let's say the project's research and analyses is made available to everyone, giving all parties access to information that describes conditions that lead toward and away from protests turning into riots.

Would activists and police/government benefit equally from this research? And is rigorous avoidance of violent conflict a goal that advances progressive political goals?

It's easy for most people to accept that non-violent exercise of democratic rights is 'better than' violent conflict. In general, I believe that is true. It's also easy to assume that more information is 'better than' less. It's hard to make a reasonable case for ignorance.

On the other hand, when civil discourse, electoral engagement, and peaceful protest fail to resolve weighty injustices -- what is to be done? And when information and the insights it facilitates are coupled with state and/or corporate power, many (including this writer) believe that its collection, analysis, and use become a risk to broadly-participatory democracy and to progressive political goals.

It's complicated.

Work like the Deciding Force Project could be a boon to activists, who might use it to base strategic organizing on new and deeper insight into the way crowds of protesters and battalions of police interact. Or -- with apologies for the hyperbole -- research in this vein could be developing a kind of information-based soma (à la Aldous Huxley's Brave New World), which might be deployed by the surveillance state to neutralize dissent. There's also the possibility that research of this sort won't deliver on its promise: that it won't predict the relationship of specific behaviors to on-the-ground outcomes any better than seasoned police and activists have done since time immemorial, on the basis of experience, familiarity with their own communities, and intuition.

'Big Data' and its analytical findings are part of the modern mix, whatever effect it might have. That's a fact. To my way of thinking, its introduction into political space demands attention and debate on the spectrum of possible roles 'Big Data' might play in relation to grassroots activism.

This post is not aimed at providing definitive answers. I do hope to raise questions and ideas worth examining. More below the squiggle.

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I arrived at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater on Sunday just in time to buy one of the few remaining tickets to East Bay filmmaker Abby Ginzberg's biographical documentary, Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa. The film is currently on the festival circuit (it premiered in South Africa earlier this year), and played in Oakland on the last day of the Jewish Film Festival.

The documentary's theatrical release is set for 18 September. Don't miss it.

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Sunshine Mugrabi's memoir, When my Boyfriend was a Girl, is a love story. In many respects it's a conventional love story: two people meet, there's chemistry, each has reservations about wading in too deep or too fast. One gets over those reservations before the other, arguments ensue, tension escalates ... and maybe they make it, maybe they don't.

But this memoir has a twist. And that the title gives away the nature of that twist doesn't diminish the freshness, honesty, surprise, or emotional resonance of its story. Not a whit. Because the two things that matter most about When my Boyfriend was a Girl are:

  1. it's a conventional love story about people who most readers won't easily imagine in a conventional relationship: a bisexual woman, and an FTM transsexual; and,
  2. it richly illustrates why those categories -- bisexual woman, FTM transsexual -- are not the defining elements in a human love story.

The memoir, published just last month, is well written and tightly paced. As dramatic narrative, it zigged and zagged -- between obstacles Sunshine and Leor encountered and the ways they found to surmount them -- a little too predictably for my taste; but as I read I weighed the book's narrative structure against the truth that zigzag is how relationships unfold in the real world. More importantly, that very same dramatic 'ordinariness' goes to the heart of the book's core message: a relationship with a transsexual is, well, a relationship.

Consider how the author treats physical love ... below the fold.

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Sometimes a letter-to-the-editor hits its target, right smack in the bull's-eye. Not that Ray Welch is your average letter-to-the-editor writer: a quick look around the intertubes reveals that he's an energy consultant, a member of activist organization Sustainable San Rafael, a novelist, and a blogger (see AChangeInTheWeather.com).

This morning, his letter to the editor of the SF Chronicle was outstanding. The most notable excerpt:

Without a carbon tax, no fossil fuel company can alter its carbon-based business model. That would violate their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, which virtually mandates them to take advantage of the free sump otherwise known as the atmosphere. A carbon tax flips their fiduciary responsibility right-side up: They would be obliged to phase out rather than increase their fossil portfolio.
This: the free sump otherwise known as the atmosphere.

Exactly.

Paying what things cost is one of my own core political themes, and Welch sums it up with admirable concision.

What do you call industry's habit of 'externalizing' effects of their activity in order to take profit that humanity and our biosphere as a whole, now and in the future, subsidizes at great peril? Sleight of hand is too polite. Illegal dumping isn't sufficiently grave.

Whatever you call it, it's killing us. Thanks for the letter, Ray....








This diary is cross-posted from the author's blog, One Finger Typing

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An article published by Reuters a couple weeks back caught my eye: Davos executives see data theft as too costly, too hard to beat. From the article, dated 24 January 2014:

Fighting online data fraudsters is almost impossible as their ability to hack into new technology often outpaces companies efforts to protect it, senior businessmen and bankers gathering for the World Economic Forum (WEF) said.

The mammoth data breach at U.S. No. 3 retailer Target (TGT.N) has made executives even more aware of the need to improve safety standards, but the cost is often prohibitive.

[...]

While losses on complex derivatives transactions could punch a big hole in a banks' balance sheet or even compromise its stability, the potential losses resulting from the theft of retail customers' data are often minimal.

Really? Minimal on whose balance sheet?

Follow me while I take a look below the fold......

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By the time I finished reading what current UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks had to say on the occasion of Nelson Mandela's death in early December, I was ... let's just say taken aback.

It turns out that dozens of fellow-activists in the Campaign Against Apartheid -- a student, staff, and community group that played a prominent role in Berkeley's anti-apartheid movement of the mid-1980s -- felt pretty much the same. Sixty-one of us signed an op-ed published today in the university's student newspaper, the Daily Californian; more signatures are still trickling in. I'll include the unedited text of the op-ed and the full set of signatures at the end of this diary.

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Max Barry's latest novel, Lexicon, is something of a mashup: a compelling shoot-em-up thriller with a secret, control-the-world-grade weapon; a deconstruction of modern marketing technique; an informed warning about 21st century ubiquitous surveillance; and a conspiracy theory about a secret society's attempt to control us from behind the curtain of corporations and government.

I couldn't put it down.

Barry's dramatization of today's massively networked webs of information and power mesmerized me. At the same time, the novel's dramatic conceits pissed me off. I strained against a rendering of corrosive, information-fueled manipulation steeped in verifiable reality ... but portrayed in exaggerated, conspiracy-theory trappings that are too easily dismissed as 'just fiction.'

Lexicon's setup, skirting spoilers, is that there's an organization of highly trained experts in what you might call applied neuro-linguistics. They call themselves "poets," and make a science of studying and using linguistic patterns (boiled down to sequences of nonsense syllables) that short-circuit the brain's neuro-linguistic filters and give a trained practitioner the ability to exercise command and control over others.

Abracadabra on steroids, sort of.

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I was an iGoogle holdout.

Yup. To the very last day.

For those who missed it: iGoogle allowed anyone with a Google ID to create a personalized portal stocked with any of a wide selection of Ajax-based gadgets -- news, stock quotes, the now-defunct Google Reader, weather forecasts, your e-mail inbox, etc. -- arranged in tiles on a web page, and built around the foundation of Google's search interface. Pretty convenient. I used it as a Home page for the service's 8 year lifespan.

I liked iGoogle for the reason most people like Google's basic services (search, mail, calendar, maps): the user interface tends to be simple, functionally straightforward, and more richly configurable (or API-addressable) than one might reasonably expect of a service that's free. (Well, free except for that small matter of letting Google track every e-mail, search, clicked-thru web page, and third-party social connection that the Overlords of Mountain View can get their acquisitive mitts on.

The NSA would be jealous except they've been stealing everything Google knows about us on the sly.

Poll

What service do you like best for portal and search?

2%4 votes
1%3 votes
1%3 votes
3%6 votes
0%1 votes
2%4 votes
2%4 votes
40%67 votes
9%15 votes
3%6 votes
31%52 votes

| 165 votes | Vote | Results

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There's something to be said for the view that the novel form is, first and foremost, a window into the human heart and mind. Novels tend to have protagonists, and the form -- unlike a play or a film -- permits a novelist to portray protagonists from the inside. To pick from authors I've happened to read in the past year, Per Petterson, Marilynne Robinson, Colm Tóibín, Paul Harding, and Jonathan Safran Foer are novelists whose work is powerful largely because it resonates and surprises in its internal portrayal of character.  

But protagonists whose hearts and minds are not laid bare to the reader can be brilliantly effective as well. In Open City, Teju Cole's protagonist -- Julius -- remains opaque even  to himself, and still shepherds the reader through a moving, provocative tour of his world and ours.

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