Friday, August 14, 2009

Should I Have Beef With the G-20?

It's been a year of highs and lows for Pittsburgh, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently observed. The Steelers won the Superbowl. Three police officers were killed in one night on duty. The Economist declared Pittsburgh America's most livable city. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup. Three women were killed by a nutcase with a gun at LA Fitness. Obama declared that Pittsburgh would host the G-20 meeting on September 24 and 25.

One question the Post-Gazette hasn't really asked is whether or not that last thing is a good thing. Most news outlets have been repeating the endless stream of some variation of "The G-20 is a perfect opportunity to show off Pittsburgh's transformation from a major center of heavy industry to its resurgence as a center of biotechnology, green design, and medicine." While the preparations for the summit have received a lot of media attention ("Michelle Obama is hosting an event at the Andy Warhol Museum!" "Free pizza for volunteers to remove graffiti from the streets of Oakland!"), the preparations for the inevitable protesters that the G-7/8/20 bring haven't been as publicized, and most of the articles don't really go into why so many groups come to protest - they generally mumble something about globalization and war.

A few websites for people interested in protesting have popped up. The G-20 Media Support team created site to provide information on organizations and events voicing dissent with regard to the G-20 summit, track media coverage to enforce "a reasonable standard of fairness and accuracy." The Thomas Merton Center, Pittsburgh's Peace and Social Justice Center, hopes to bring together the many different groups of activitists that will be converging on the city. The Pittsbugh G-20 Resistance Project seeks to "demonstrate and build new and existing alternatives to the worldview represented by the G-20 and the direct policies it promotes, and to disrupt the summit and undermine its attempts to gain legitimacy." A variety of marches, protests, and coordinated actions are planned, some with permission, some without. "Direct action" to disrupt the day's events (people purposefully getting arrested) and other sorts of media-friendly activities are inevitable.

The goals of this summit of the G-20 are to reform the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and talk about "green economies." From what I can distill from reading the goals, mission statements, associations, and everything of the voices of dissent, the protestors oppose capitalism, globalization, war, hierarchy, discrimination, and a whole lot of other things. They are in favor of the eradication of poverty, self-determination, peace, social justice, and anti-authoritarianism.

But all of this doesn't really answer my original questions, which is whether I should oppose them.

Although most people assume I am politically liberal (and it is true that am a registered Democrat), when asked, I tend to say that I am anti-everything - it's easier than actually explaining that even though I do think that capitalism is an evil system that oppresses people and makes it impossible for everyone to obtain their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I think that it is less evil than the results of economic systems that require a spirit of collectivism on a scale that is unnatural for humans (we are protective of our family and tribal groups and generally distrustful of people we don't know). I don't think that globalization is inherently evil, but when government subsidies in one country make it impossible for people somewhere else to make a living, I think it needs to be reconsidered. I want the government to stay out of my personal life, but I want it to protect the environment and make sure that I am not getting exploited by some multi-national corporation whose actions hold no person legally accountable.

Although I sympathize with many of the sentiments of the protesters - self-determination, freedom of speech and assembly, social and environmental justice - I don't believe that the capitalism and globalization need to be completely abolished to accomplish those goals, and I think that the stability they provide is vital to the improvement of places where no such stability exists. So, G-20, have fun hanging around in my city, I hope that you guys are working toward the world your citizens deserve.

I'll probably attend some of the G-20 protester events just to see what's going on, but the only ones I am willing to say I agree with (and even then, not completely) are the ones on climate change. I'll try not to get arrested.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Book Review: Cory Doctorow's Little Brother

This weekend I started and finished Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. Although it's been sitting on my shelf since Christmas, I only got around to it reading it now. The title is a reference to George Orwell's 1984, where "Big Brother" watches over everyone.

Little Brother centers around a small group of high school hacker-geeks in San Francisco. The protagonist, Marcus (also known by his handles m1k3y and w1n5t0n, pronounced "Mikey" and "Winston") is intelligent, self-assured, and a bit rebellious, exploring his esoteric and unique hobbies without being pushed by his parents or teachers. The novel opens with him convincing a few friends to skip school to continue playing their favorite ARG. While running around SanFran to find their next clue, a terrorist group blows up the Bay Bridge and the kids are thrown into a prison run by the Department of Homeland Security, suspected of being terrorists. The rest of the book chronicles Marcus and his friends in their struggle to keep their freedom and privacy from being taken away in exchange for ineffective attempts at security. It's a fun read - well-paced, humorous, and enjoyable for adults even though it was written for teens.

Doctorow also uses the book to explain how a lot computer technology works, especially data encryption and RFID chips ("arphids"). It also delves heavily into why the "security theatre" in a post-9/11 world doesn't outsmart determined criminals, American social movements, free culture and copyright issues, and other aspects of techno-geek subculture (gaming, the Swedish Pirate Party, etc.). Doctorow takes the time to explain the difference between ARGing and LARPing, what horchata tastes like, and other small details that will make readers familiar with such things smile with recognition of something that doesn't show up in your everyday novel, and makes sure n00bs aren't lost.

A few aspects of the book annoyed me, such as Doctorow's insistence that when Marcus talks about his girlfriend, he describes her as "h4wt" rather than hot. I also didn't feel that one of the plotlines was wrapped up adequately (when Marcus is detained initially by the DHS, one of his friends is also detained for the duration of the novel. He reappears at the end, but only as an aside). Still, Doctorow's writing is smooth, fresh, and fun.

More than anything else, I wish I were 13 or 14 years old reading this book for the first time - the age I was when I read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World. I hope that Little Brother someday joins the canon of dystopian literature. But for now, a movie version is rumored. I can't wait.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Common Slang in Claireadise

If you have spoken to me for more than 30 minutes at a time, I have probably tried to convince you to adopt some new slang that I or someone I know has invented. I would like to share a few of those with you now.

Wom - short for "Woman." While calling someone woman, or saying, "Get me a beer, woman!" rightfully earns you a slap across the face, calling someone "wom" rather than "girl," "chica," or any other term means that they are a hardworking, cool girl. "Wom" is a term of respect. So if someone says, "Get me a beer, wom!" you should get them a beer, and one for yourself as well, because woms always drink beer if there is any to be had.

Living the dream - living with your parents while being unemployed or jobsearching. Living the dream is a euphemism for our recessionary times. During the economic booms of yesteryear, living in your parent's house after your post-secondary education was a mark of a total and complete loser - even 20-somethings with useless degrees in art history and anthropology lived in their own ramshackle apartments and worked temp jobs. However, the over-educated and under-employed have started to realize the value of living at home again - free room, board, cable...hell, your mom even makes you a sandwich if you catch her at the right moment. Being a complete leech on the rest of society really is "living the dream," at least for awhile.

Yayf/Boof - "yay for" and "boo for." These two terms are used to concisely express appreciation or dissatisfaction for anything - for example, "Yayf beer!" or "Boof speed trap!"

More slang to come - and feel free to suggest your own favorite slang!

On Knotweed

On Wednesday night, my friend Rosemary and I drove out to Polish Hill to participate in removal of some knotweed and a discussion on permaculture. Rosemary found out about this event through MeetUp.com, a site that tries to connect people with the same interests in the same region with social and activist networks. This event was organized by the Smart Urbanism meetup group and the Pittsburgh Garden Experiment.

The goal of the evening was to cut back some of the Japanese knotweed in Frank Curto park. Knotweed is a fast-growing plant that looks like bamboo (although they are not closely related), but with larger, rounder leaves. The stalks are brittle and hollow, and edible when they are small. It is also a major sources of resveratrol, which is sold as a nutritional supplement (although its health benefits have been reported in animals, but not yet in humans).

However, once knotweed has taken root in an area, its huge size (the plants can grow to be 9-12 feet tall in a single growing season) and extensive root networks (up to 10 feet deep and a lateral radius of over 20 feet) choke out any other plants in the area. Even more unsettling, trying to remove the plant through excavation often makes the situation worse, because the plant will resprout from its vast root network. It is able to tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and climates, though it doesn't do well in shade. The only way to really contain it is through toxic herbicides such as Roundup.

Or is it? At Wednesday's meeting, we discussed possibilities for containing the knotweed invasion in Pittsburgh (it is widespread in the park we were in) keeping organic and permaculture principles in mind. One of the suggestions was to cut the stalks but leave them to dry and die, blocking the sun for any new growth, which we did in one area. Another suggestion was to look into fungi species that might have an adverse effect on the knotweed. Another was to try to find a use that would require frequent harvesting, making a good out of a "bad." I've been hunting around for research into non-toxic methods of containment, but I haven't found much so far, other than this delicious knotweed snack recipe.