Beyond the famous first sentence it somehow gets even more disturbing ... and terribly sad. There's obviously lots to say and lots that has already beBeyond the famous first sentence it somehow gets even more disturbing ... and terribly sad. There's obviously lots to say and lots that has already been said, so I'll stick to recommending this piece from Jacobin, which digs into the big theme of "alienation" and how you should and shouldn't read it as a Marxist allegory. I also thought this article was interesting to see Kafka as the progenitor of the "slipstream" genre....more
The legal battle over Texaco's petroleum contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon has taken so many twists and turns over the decades that it can't easiThe legal battle over Texaco's petroleum contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon has taken so many twists and turns over the decades that it can't easily be summarized even in a longish online think piece, so Paul Barrett's well-organized book is probably as good a place to start as any. The story is a testament to the idea that for every lawyer there is an equal and opposite lawyer: in this case, the crusading obsessive Steven Donziger versus the legal might of Chevron, one of the largest and most-profitable corporations on the planet, duking it out over billions of dollars in liability for environmental contamination.
Barrett's overall stance is slightly pro-Chevron, but his telling of the basic facts of the case is fairly persuasive. Starting in the 1960s, Texaco discovered oil in a previously undeveloped region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, and it operated the oil fields in a consortium with the Ecuadorian government until 1992. In the process, Texaco left behind waste oil in hundreds of unlined pits in the rain forest (!!!), dumped vast quantities of toxic "produced" water directly into the rivers, and drove a rapid settlement and industrialization process in a previously isolated indigenous region. Texaco also directed that any records of environmental mishaps be destroyed, aided by a series of unstable Quito-based governments who sought to profit off the oil revenues, rather than regulate the environmental harm.
In 1993, a team of lawyers led by Steven Donziger filed suit in New York on behalf of residents of the contaminated region (Aguinda v Texaco). Texaco successfully argued that the suit should be moved to Ecuador, and in 2003 the suit was refiled in Lago Agrio, right in the heart of the oil fields. Chevron acquired the lawsuit when it bought Texaco in 2000. For their part, Chevron argues that a 1998 agreement to remediate a portion of the oil pits absolves them of any liability, and that any remaining contamination is the responsibility of the government of Ecuador. The plaintiffs counter that the agreement did not apply to private individuals, who are still free to bring lawsuits, and that because Texaco made the day-to-day operational decisions they are the proper liable party.
We visited the Lago Agrio region in late 2008, while the Aguinda lawsuit was still going on, and took a "toxics tour" organized by the plaintiff's organization. We saw a shocking level of oil contamination in the midst of a beautiful rain forest -- large pools of oil that had apparently been sitting there since the '70s, some with installed overflow pipes leading into the nearby rivers, some close to houses and communities. We were also taken to sites that Texaco claimed to have remediated in the 1990s, where modest homes sat on top of dirt that had been bulldozed over the oil. A few shovelfuls quickly uncovered dirt that stank like oil. Since that trip I've been mildly obsessed with the case.
In 2011, Chevron's strategy failed and the Lago Agrio court found Chevron guilty and ordered a massive $9.5 billion judgment (doubled to $19B if they didn't say "sorry"). However, Chevron counter-attacked with a series of discovery motions that found that Donziger, Pablo Fajardo and the other plaintiffs' lawyers had basically selected and ghost-written the report of the court-appointed expert -- a massive no-no in U.S. courts, although Donziger claims the norms are different in Ecuador. Chevron then filed and won a RICO suit against Donziger in U.S. courts. The judge prevented the plaintiffs from collecting damages on Chevron assets in the U.S. and found Donziger guilty of racketeering for allegedly bribing and ghostwriting the judge's final verdict. Which sounds pretty bad, but consider the racketeering evidence is largely based on uncorroborated testimony from an unreliable former judge who is now on the Chevron payroll and living in the U.S.
Barnett largely concludes that Donziger is guilty and seems quite attracted to the story of a flawed idealist who crossed ethical lines in pursuit of justice. I would tend to agree that Donziger badly overstepped a number of bounds. He has admitted to "mistakes" but denies any serious wrongdoing. In the dirty tricks department, Chevron's hands are not clean either, which does tend to raise questions of reasonable doubt about the RICO verdict.
(The legal intricacies and dramatic reversals have been fodder for a number of online legal analysts and "chevronologists." If you are curious to go deeper down the rabbit hole, you can read Donziger's own account of the case here, Chevron's take here, and an interesting analysis of the RICO verdict from a legal group sympathetic to Donziger here.)
It's not clear what will happen next. The RICO case is currently under appeal, but for the moment the plaintiffs are unable to collect any rewards in U.S. courts. Chevron holds no assets in Ecuador, but lawsuits have been filed in Canada, Argentina and Brazil. The plaintiffs have a new lawyer and are arguing that whatever Donziger's screw-ups they should not be held accountable for his sins. I would have thought that given the convoluted history a new trial might be a good idea, but as several legal experts have pointed out, the Lago Agrio verdict was upheld on appeal by another Ecuadorian court, of which there has been no allegations of impropriety. Texaco originally argued that it was Ecuador's case to decide; well, they seem to have gotten their wish.
It's at the conclusion that Barrett's "pox on both houses" reporting style partly misses the larger picture. The facts of the case seem to indicate that Chevron is almost certainly liable for at least a fraction of the contamination. Petroecuador certainly shares responsibility, but that fact does not absolve Chevron. But is it even possible to bring one of the world's largest multi-national corporations to justice? As Barrett notes, it was more cost-effective for Chevron in the short-run to "fight until hell freezes over" and then "fight it out on the ice" rather than settle (seen as a sign of weakness by management). But in the long run, Chevron has spent a few billion in legal fees, the rainforest remains polluted, the region remains quite poor, local inhabitants continue to get sick, and environmental justice remains elusive....more
OK 2.5 stars. Granted, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a hard act to follow, and it must be said that this volume strives mightily to live up to those expOK 2.5 stars. Granted, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a hard act to follow, and it must be said that this volume strives mightily to live up to those expectations. But all of its busyness leads to some poor plot decisions. As most other reviewers have noted, the second act twist that converts Locke and Jean into amateur pirates is... misguided at best, a failed hail mary pass at worst. In fact, it makes so little sense that the characters even remark on what a weird decision it is.
There is still a lot to like in Lynch's writing. He's funny and witty and has a good handle on his main characters, but there's little sense that he knows where this series is going or what exactly he wants to say with it. For better or worse, Locke is a character who requires an insurmountable challenge and a lofty goal, and this outing doesn't quite supply it. ...more
Having devoured the book in just a few days, I have to say, it's got a killer story concept, well-executed (obviously a lot of other people think so tHaving devoured the book in just a few days, I have to say, it's got a killer story concept, well-executed (obviously a lot of other people think so too). Being a giant science nerd, I definitely got a kick out of the ways he wrung real drama out of scientific constraints, problem-solving and the reality of unforeseen consequences. Oftentimes hard sci-fi can seem contrived in the way it boxes protagonists into conflict with the laws of physics, but the set-up here seems pretty realistic.
I thought the "mission log" framing device was a bit of a mistake, as it tended to flatten out the emotional aspect of the adventure. We were constantly seeing crises in the rear-view mirror, which was a good opportunity for Watney to crack self-deprecating jokes, but missed a lot of opportunities to do something more interesting with despair, loneliness, hope, memory, etc....more
A very enjoyable space opera that brought to mind Iain M. Banks's Consider Phlebas. Built around a compelling conceit (that (view spoiler)[the galactiA very enjoyable space opera that brought to mind Iain M. Banks's Consider Phlebas. Built around a compelling conceit (that (view spoiler)[the galactic hegemon has poured her consciousness into thousands of bodies and has slowly become divided against herself (hide spoiler)]), the book doesn't disappoint with regards to the the usual space battles, mega-AIs and planet-hopping intrigue that you expect.
Leckie manages to make her AI-protagonist, Breq, human enough to be relatable, if still slightly alien. I thought the gender-pronoun thing was interesting and fun, and not nearly as controversial as some idiots on the internet made it out to be. It's always nice to see sci fi interrogate social norms (I mean, that's what the genre is for, right?), but the way language filters our perspective on the world should be familiar to anyone who has ever learned a second language. ["br"]>["br"]>...more
Wool is a fantastic concept for a subterranean dystopia, but the execution was hampered a bit by bland characters and a few plot holes.
The world of WWool is a fantastic concept for a subterranean dystopia, but the execution was hampered a bit by bland characters and a few plot holes.
The world of Wool is a narrow, 150-story underground silo where humans have burrowed to escape an environmental catastrophe that has rendered the Earth's surface toxic and uninhabitable. This subterranean society has evolved many unusual cultural features--including restricted reproduction, a planned economy and strict taboos regarding the world above. For example, citizens who are too curious about the upper world are expelled from the silo and sentenced to "clean" the sensors that connect the silo to the outside world. A narrative (and physical) space this tightly constrained is naturally set up for a disruption, a revolution, a dam bursting. But Wool smartly dispatches with one such potential narrative in the very first novella.
The author takes a lot of care with his worldbuilding, but a few points miss the mark. (view spoiler)[Crucially the central concept of "cleaning" made no sense to me. We are told that the stability of the society depends on the cleaners actually doing what is expected of them once they are expelled (witness what happens when Jules refuses). The nefarious IT cabal has rigged the visual display in the suits so that the cleaners experience a false revelation of freedom once they reach the surface. But given that fact, it makes no sense that 100% of the cleaners would still go through with the cleaning before running off into the false utopia they've been shown. Why wouldn't at least one of them just decide to walk away? It seems like a big risk and a pretty thin thread to hang an elaborate conspiracy on. (hide spoiler)]
The weakness of the central premise mirrors other weak points in the narrative. These highly specific totalitarian dystopias are maybe easy to construct, but fragile and consequently too easy to knock down in the second half of the book. The silo never feels or moves like a real city. The revolution, when it comes, feels too quick. The resolution and the unexpected hero feel too convenient. The book poses interesting questions about power and society, but never really reaches a good answer. The result is a highly entertaining storyline that generates a lot of action and excitement and frantically turned pages, but ultimately ends up more or less where you thought it would go in the first place.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Another fun Cormoran Strike mystery, slightly darker than The Cuckoo's Calling but anchored as before by the well-crafted main characters. My sister sAnother fun Cormoran Strike mystery, slightly darker than The Cuckoo's Calling but anchored as before by the well-crafted main characters. My sister says she envisions Cormoran Strike as Mad-Eye Moody transplanted into modern London, and once you think about it you won't be able to unsee it....more
The third book in Lev Grossman's trilogy feels like a highly satisfying victory lap rather than the emotional envelope-pushing of the first two volumeThe third book in Lev Grossman's trilogy feels like a highly satisfying victory lap rather than the emotional envelope-pushing of the first two volumes. And there's nothing wrong with that! It's also the most C.S. Lewis-y of the three, drawing on the structure of The Last Battle and delving deep into the nuts and bolts of Fillory. I will confess to being conflicted about (view spoiler)[how Alice is brought back from niffin-hood by Quentin's undying love and/or magic. Don't get me wrong, it was great to have her back as a character and it was an undeniably satisfying move, but it also seemed a bit like a cop-out, or mere wish-fulfillment, or a loss of nerve on the part of the author. (hide spoiler)] Not my favorite of the trilogy, but it's hard to complain too much if the weakest link is this entertaining....more
This is the story of the first decade or so of Greenpeace* as told by one of its many co-founders. The organization first made its name in the 1970s tThis is the story of the first decade or so of Greenpeace* as told by one of its many co-founders. The organization first made its name in the 1970s through three major campaigns: witnessing nuclear tests in Alaska and the South Pacific, as well as direct intervention in the Russian whale hunts off the coast of California and the Newfoundland seal hunt. The startling image of Russian harpoons firing directly over the heads of activists in zodiacs is one I recall from my childhood. This book tells the story of the how those people decided to put themselves in harm's way for another species.
Greenpeace is now a large, international organization that campaigns on a wide variety of environmental issues, but it still retains in its DNA the emphasis on bearing witness and non-violent direct action as responses to injustice and environmental degradation. There are negative elements found here too that the organization also wrestles with today, including widespread sexism, appropriation of Native American culture (evidenced by the title), and a lack of connection with broader movements for racial and social justice.
Still the book is a surprisingly fun bit of storytelling. Robert Hunter was originally a journalist so he has an eye for what makes a story interesting -- jokes, personalities and the like. An acolyte of Marshall McLuhan, Hunter understood that the goal of activism was to seize the public imagination by telling compelling stories. Inevitably there is some amount of whale-related hippie mysticism you have to slog through, although Hunter himself is the first to roll his eyes. He doesn't seem like the sort of guy to take himself too seriously. At its best, Warriors of the Rainbow reads like an adventure story. Given their full-speed-ahead attitude and the number of risks they took, it is frankly amazing that no one died (at least until 1986 when the French government sunk the Rainbow Warrior, killing photographer Francisco Pereira).
I admit that based on the cover I was expecting a pulpy, Flash Gordon-style space opera, replete with 1950s social mores. So it was a pleasant surprisI admit that based on the cover I was expecting a pulpy, Flash Gordon-style space opera, replete with 1950s social mores. So it was a pleasant surprise to read this loose, dreamlike, funny, occasionally subversive batch of stories. Bradbury gets a lot of mileage out of the vein of ambiguity running through the collection, which is refreshingly counter-cultural for science fiction. (In a way, this reminded me of Crowley's ambiguous fantasy novel, Little, Big.)...more
Still it is a tad disappointing that Priest doesn't do all that much with her world, apart from staging exciting action scenes. Additionally, her discussion of slavery in the context of her expanded Civil War was a little too quick and glib, like she wanted to sweep that unpleasant racism right under the rug....more
It is one life's weird little ironies that Macondo, the well blowout that led to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, shares a name withIt is one life's weird little ironies that Macondo, the well blowout that led to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, shares a name with the fictional town in Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Cavnar's account of BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster starts with a quote from Marquez and gets more surreal from there. The author is an old oil industry hand and he clearly knows his stuff, although the book was seemingly rushed to press only weeks after the well was killed, so some of his narrative is speculative and lacking information that only came to light later. What results is an exciting and infuriating read, although not the most elegantly written or organized.
The pervasive oil industry jargon will be a stumbling block for a lot of people. There is a glossary, but some explanatory text and figures would go a long way toward illuminating the issues involved in drilling deepwater oil wells. As it is, you just have to roll with it and pick up some important clues from context. He does a great job presenting the facts of the incident, including the narrative of the blowout, the explosion that killed 11 workers, the sinking of the rig and the months long struggle to contain the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. He also provides valuable context into the oil industry and the weakness of government regulators from his years working in the industry. He ends up taking a "pox on all their houses" tone, slamming the industry and the regulators equally, but he comes up short on concrete solutions to either reform the industry or end our reliance on oil....more
The first third of this book is a lean and lucid summary of global finance. If you're like me, you might find the world of high finance intimidating aThe first third of this book is a lean and lucid summary of global finance. If you're like me, you might find the world of high finance intimidating and full of weird jargon. This section went a long way towards demystifying the financial world for me. (To give one example: I now know what the word "equity" means!)
The remaining 2/3rds of the book is devoted to a frequently engaging, but often under-cooked, treatise on how the financial sector might be "hacked" and put to work building a more just and sustainable world. The author uses hacking as a metaphor for a more constructive engagement with finance, as opposed to vaguer notions of "revolution" or "overthrow" that sometimes get tossed around.
In order to be a successful hacker you have to understand and engage with the system, something that environmentalists and social justice activists aren't very good at. This section has a number of fascinating ideas for how activists can hack into the financial system -- everything from going undercover at a bank to starting up a hedge fund and diverting the proceeds to affected communities. Groups like Platform London and Greenpeace have started to incorporate shareholder outreach into their climate activism, and concepts like "stranded assets" and "carbon bubbles" are commonly discussed in the business press. But this is uncharted territory for many. Many of the ideas could benefit from more detail and a tad more skepticism, but overall the book is a stimulating read....more
A totally charming graphic novel about a girl who jumps through a portal to save her friend who has been abducted by a tentacled space-thing. There arA totally charming graphic novel about a girl who jumps through a portal to save her friend who has been abducted by a tentacled space-thing. There are strong Miyazaki-echoes here, but even more so, it reminded me of those extended fantasy sequences from Calvin and Hobbes -- both for the line and watercolor drawings and the light-hearted adventure. Not surprisingly the 7-year-old loves it....more
Not as densely packed with jokes as your average 30 Rock episode, but then few things are. Still, there was a least one bit each chapter that had me lNot as densely packed with jokes as your average 30 Rock episode, but then few things are. Still, there was a least one bit each chapter that had me laughing in a socially inappropriate manner....more
It's been interesting to watch V for Vendetta's second act as the visual aesthetic of choice for the anarchist hacker movement Anonymous. In the storyIt's been interesting to watch V for Vendetta's second act as the visual aesthetic of choice for the anarchist hacker movement Anonymous. In the story, it's weird that no explanation is ever really given for V's speed and fighting prowess, and his near-omnipotence at manipulating and then bringing down the fascist government. There's a contradiction there that's not really resolved: the revolution requires superpowers to succeed and yet super-heroes are inherently disempowering. One would almost go so far as to say that the idea of an all-powerful caped crusader protecting us is a pretty authoritarian idea at heart. (OK it's complicated.) But to see V reborn in the internet age, when hackers and whistleblowers *actually* *can* wield institution shaking powers (i.e. NSA, Sony, etc) is a fairly interesting (and possibly disturbing) vindication of the premise.
Anyway, if Alan Moore's political analysis is not 100% aligned with my own, there's no denying the power of the graphic novel he created. In particular, the first act is basically perfect. Try not to get chills when he whispers the rhyme: Remember, remember the fifth of November... Things get a little more questionable in the second act (view spoiler)[where V "tortures" Evey into freedom. We've all had way too much visceral experience with torture recently to see this as anything other than glib posturing. I guess you could getaway with that in the 1980s when torture was a little more abstract. It rings false today (hide spoiler)]. Still, as with Watchmen, it's pretty remarkable how influential it all is. I'm pretty sure Tarantino swiped that whole bible-verse thing from here.["br"]>["br"]>...more
This wasn't really my cup of tea. It feels a little churlish to say because Rothfuss is absolutely writing his heart out here and it's to his credit tThis wasn't really my cup of tea. It feels a little churlish to say because Rothfuss is absolutely writing his heart out here and it's to his credit that this is as readable as it is. But ultimately this was an interesting 20-30 page chapter blown up into a fairly repetitive novella. The character of Auri is an interesting creation and he's worked hard to give her a unique voice and a rich inner world, but this would be so much more awesome if he connected his lovely character study to a plot. Any plot at all. It doesn't have to by Kvothe's plot, just something to give shape to the imagery and twee wordplay. Anyway, yet more evidence that Rothfuss is a talented writer. Looking forward to Doors of Stone....more
I have to admit I probably never would have picked this up on my own, but someone left it at our house and I was really looking for something light anI have to admit I probably never would have picked this up on my own, but someone left it at our house and I was really looking for something light and fun to read. And it was great! Just the sort of wacky, character-driven shaggy-dog story that Christopher Moore churns out annually. Lots of fun bits about architecture, Microsoft, Antarctica and snobby helicopter parents. The early sections are laugh-out-loud funny, especially the petty back-and-forth sniping between the parents. It gets less obviously comic as it goes on, but never dull, and even a little bit poignant as it draws to a close....more
John Darnielle is a brilliant song-writer, and his debut novel proves he's pretty good at longer forms too. But Wolf in White Van is both a fascinatinJohn Darnielle is a brilliant song-writer, and his debut novel proves he's pretty good at longer forms too. But Wolf in White Van is both a fascinating and a frustrating book. Sean is a young man who suffered a terrible, disfiguring accident as a teenager, and now lives largely isolated from his family and the world. He makes a living by running a complex role-playing game called "Trace Italian", where players send their moves through the mail and he responds, guiding them through a post-apocalyptic landscape toward a safe haven that will never be reached. When two of Sean's players are harmed by taking the game too seriously, it forces Sean to reflect on his own accident years before. The narrative takes place entirely in Sean's thoughts as they swirl backwards in time to that moment.
Darnielle does a great job creating the character of Sean, and he handles the twin storylines and jumbled timeframes expertly. The two stories interact with one another and reveal a certain, unmeltable darkness inside of Sean. It's a fascinating, uncomfortable and unconventional psychological portrait, but unfortunately, Darnielle doesn't seem to know what to do with the character he's created. (view spoiler)[Because the book ends with a flashback to Sean's attempted suicide, we never learn what ultimately happens to him going forward. Sean remains stuck, static, unchanging. It seems that this is in some sense the point of the book. Both the book's title and the structure of Trace Italian seem to indicate that this is a puzzle with no solution, a mystery with a blank space in the center. But this ultimately feels like a huge cop-out. After all that has come before it would be a literary miracle to have written a way forward for Sean that didn't feel like an after-school special, but it's a little disappointing that he didn't even try. (hide spoiler)] Still he's obviously a talented writer and the critical love that the book is getting makes me hopeful that he'll get to keep writing.["br"]>["br"]>...more
A really outdated book about visualization of strange attractors. The vast majority of the text is taken over by pretty pictures and the step-by-stepA really outdated book about visualization of strange attractors. The vast majority of the text is taken over by pretty pictures and the step-by-step creation of a fairly eccentric program to create the visualizations (written in BASIC, of all things). Someone gave me the book as a gift years ago and I only picked it up recently since I was teaching myself python and this seemed like a fun way to learn the plotting libraries. The first few chapters provide a decent introduction to chaos found in simple iterated equations, and a few lines of code can give you some nifty visuals. That said, the book continues for pages and pages of absolutely bone-crushing detail that most people will just want to skip....more
The Magicians succeeded on the basis of a great central idea -- that magic is just as spiritually corrupting as wealth and privilege -- and a gut-puncThe Magicians succeeded on the basis of a great central idea -- that magic is just as spiritually corrupting as wealth and privilege -- and a gut-punch ending. This book finds Quentin picking himself up post-disaster and moving on to new adventures in the magical land of Fillory. Quentin and friends aren't quite as darkly amusing this time 'round, as they have inevitably matured somewhat. Thankfully, in the character of Julia, Grossman finds another story worth telling and her story arc enriches the novel and mitigates any sense of diminishing returns. Plus the hilarious, sarcastic humor remains. All told, this might be a sharper, better book than the first volume....more
My daughter has been tearing through these books at a pace of one a day (library e-books are awesome), so I thought I would read along with her. I enjMy daughter has been tearing through these books at a pace of one a day (library e-books are awesome), so I thought I would read along with her. I enjoyed the cleverness, the wordplay and gloomy aesthetic of the first 3 books, but the formula really wears thin in this one. You can really tell that even Handler is getting a bit bored with the repetition, although there are some nice moments here and there. However, the online consensus seems to be that the series really picks up somewhere around book 6 and develops into a much more interesting story arc from there on out. At least this one was short....more
This book relates the long and twisty path from the discovery of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) in the late 1960s to their conclusive linkage with the deathsThis book relates the long and twisty path from the discovery of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) in the late 1960s to their conclusive linkage with the deaths of massive stars in the late 1990s. Along the way the author seems to have tracked down and interviewed every major researcher in the field (including my Ph.D. advisor) and hits all the important highlights (and most of the backalleyways and dead ends as well). Because gamma-ray astronomy must be done above the earth's atmosphere, this is also the story of 5 or 6 expensive satellite missions and the large collaborations that ran them, and as such, it's also an interesting look at the perils and politics of launching scientific instruments into space.
Since this was my field of research I've had a lot of experience explaining just what they heck GRBs are and why they are interesting. To the average layperson I think GRBs a reasonably interesting topic to talk about (explosions! black holes!) but it does have a lot of moving parts that need explaining before certain basic facts make sense (like: what's a gamma-ray?). The author does a pretty good job of explaining the physics, but I think the core story found here is about the sociology of science and the scientific process. Maybe more so than many other discoveries, the history of GRBs is a great example of how paradigm shifts work in science.
Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. Possibly more later......more