Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cory Doctorow – On Little And Big Brother



“It's a race to the bottom all around the world right now. Canada, Germany, the US, and the UK, as well as the rest of the EU, are basically locked in a race to see who can implement 1984 the fastest.”
- Cory Doctorow


"Omfgomfgomfgomfgomfg you have no idea how amazing you are!!!!!" was the exact turn of phrase used by my Twitter friend @EisMC2 when I told her I'd just interviewed Little Brother author Cory Doctorow and had returned with a signed copy of the book for her. Indeed it was @EisMC2 and her fiancé @JackalAnon who first turned me on to Doctorow's epic updated spin on George Orwell's Big Brother vision, which was first published in 2007. Uncannily prophetic, the novel serves as a veritable playbook for the Occupy movement, and with online pranksters turned hacktivists as its heroic protagonists, it is also an inspirational work for many Anons (hence the need for at least five omfgs). Combining an action packed and V-relevant plot with a solid historical perspective on activism, in retrospect, Little Brother may be considered one of the great civil liberties texts of our time.

The math, science, and sociopolitical commentary spun into the prose of Little Brother is pure genius, while the story makes for a gripping reading experience. As @EisMC2 puts it, Doctorow has a knack "for distributing the #Truth in a manner everyone can understand." For example, during an expository paragraph regarding a key plot point, Doctorow also manages to simply and concisely explain how Bayesian mathematics (which puts the spam in your filter) is being deployed in an unscientific way to find "statistically abnormal" people to put under the security microscope – irrespective of whether they're actually likely to have done anything wrong. Even if advanced probability theory isn't your thing, by the time you've finished Little Brother, you'll have a deep understanding of how this kind of statistical analysis – which government agencies routinely rely on to make policy and find targets in the war of terror – can be misinterpreted and manipulated with chilling effect.

Though set in an unspecified near future, much of the fictional dystopian world Doctorow depicted when he wrote Little Brother five years ago is now a reality (such as the indefinite detention of US citizens without trial or due process). It's a tale of terrorism, society's overreation to it, the psychology of fear, and the erosion of our constitutional rights. It also contains many elements occupiers will be all too familiar with: protests, out of control cops, pepper spray, tear gas, smoke bombs, police brutality, and a biased and lazy media "reporting" on it all.

At the start of the year, having spent some quality time at OccupyLSX, I met up with Doctorow at his North London workspace. Surrounded by cool gadgets, toys, and all manner of geek memorabilia (such as an original 1973 set of D&D boxed game instructions), I chatted at length with the author, digital rights champion, and Boing Boing co-editor about Little Brother, its forthcoming sequel Homeland, the realities of Big Brother, and how to stay under the radar when living in a surveillance state.

Read my interview with Cory Doctorow on SuicideGirls.com.

For more on Cory Doctorow visit craphound.com/. A free copy of Little Brother can be downloaded under a Creative Commons license here.

A staged version of Little Brother by The Custom Made Theatre Co. is currently playing through February 25 in San Francisco. Visit Custommade.org for full details.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Robert F Kennedy Jr – The Last Mountain



“It's not democracy anymore.”
- Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.


On the surface, The Last Mountain is a documentary about the dirty business of coal, the highly destructive and toxic practice of mountaintop removal mining, and one community's fight to preserve their homes, their livelihoods, their health, and the last great mountain in the region. However, the story of Coal River Mountain in West Virginia is allegorical of much that is wrong with America, which is why during our roundtable conversation with the film's champion, renowned environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., he barely mentions the four-letter word that is coal. Instead, Kennedy focuses on the underlying history and climate that has allowed corporations to rape and pillage our environment, and poison and kill our citizenry with impunity.

In The Last Mountain, Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy (he retired at the end of December 2010), is typecast in the role of modern day robber baron. As the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia, his company is only able to function on the scale it does by subjugating democracy. Mountaintop removal mining is cheaper and less labor intensive than traditional underground coal extraction methods, but it causes such an affront to the landscape, water and air, that it can only be done when the authorities charged with protecting the public interest are willing and able to look the other way.

Between 2000 and 2006 Massey chalked up a staggering 60,000 EPA infractions, but has suffered little in consequences beyond much belated and pitifully low fines that serve the government's need to be seen to be doing something while maintaining the status quo. Of course, Massey is not the only corporation and coal is far from the only industry that is using and abusing our severely compromised shell of a democracy. In light of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling allowing corporate campaign donations (and a subsequent one that makes direct-to-candidate payments permissible), our government couldn't be for more up for sale if it were posted on eBay.

Though there will inevitably be dark days ahead for our democracy, it's not all doom and gloom thanks to a groundswell of grassroots activism as witnessed in Coal River Valley and documented in The Last Mountain. As for the environment, Kennedy points out towards the end of this interview that there's an (LED) light at the end of the tunnel, and ironically it's capitalism in its cleanest and purest form that may end up saving the day.

Read our interview with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on SuicideGirls.com.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Bill Haney - The Last Mountain




“I think that the tide against mountaintop mining's free ride is turning.”
- Bill Haney


There's nothing pretty about coal mining at the best of times, but mountaintop removal mining is downright obscene. The process is ugly in every sense of the word, but is less labor intensive, and therefore cheaper and more desirable for the big energy corporations who do it. However the hidden expense in terms of the environment, public health, employment, and subsidies mean that it's something that the American public is paying dearly for. The cost of mountaintop removal mining is something that is literally and metaphorically killing us.

The sordid details involve deforestation to prepare the site. The 'overburden' - in this case a euphemism for the top 250 to 500 feet of a mountain - is then removed using dynamite to reveal the underlying coal seam. The rubble created as the mountaintop is blown away is generally pushed down the mountainside, covering flora and fauna, rivers and streams, and anything else in its wake. Once the coal has been removed the mining companies are supposed to restore the site, but this requirement is at best broadly interpreted, and at worse blatantly flouted with few repercussions.

Fifty percent of the electricity produced in the US comes from coal-powered plants, and thirty percent of the coal used comes from Appalachia. As a result, 500 majestic Appalachian mountains have been destroyed. The biggest perpetrator of this destruction is Massey Energy, who proudly proclaim on their website that their 'vision' is 'to be the premier supplier of quality coal from Central Appalachia to worldwide markets.'

The physical removal of coal however, is only the first stage in a highly toxic chain of events. The coal then has to be prepared, a procedure that uses vast amounts of water to wash off the soil and rock. The byproduct of this is a filthy sludge, which contains all manner of heavy metals and other such carcinogens, that is stored in vast impoundments. These sludge ponds are generally lazily constructed using dirt that is blasted off the mountaintop to damn a valley below. For the most part, there's no concrete or steel reinforcement as would befit dams built on such a scale. Because of this, many of these impoundments are leaking, and, furthermore, because these structures are not lined, the pollutants even in the sound dams leak into the surrounding water table.

The environmental impact of such mining practices is supposed to be mitigated by the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, which in turn are supposed to be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and, to some extent, the Army Corps of Engineers. But a Bush-era single word change to the Clean Water Act arrested its ability to control pollution, much to the delight of the polluters. Known as the Fill Rule, the definition of allowable fill material that could be dumped into lakes, rivers, and streams was essentially broadened to include all manner of waste. Thus, the Clean Water Act now serves as a license for big business to pollute.

Because of the intrinsically dirty nature of coal mining and the cozy relationship the industrialists have with those in power (George Bush famously called his election to office 'a coal-fired victory' because of the extent of the industry's contributions to his cause), pollution is an inevitable part of the process and polluters are rarely brought to task. For example, according to Environmental Protection Agency records, Massey Energy committed over 60,000 violations between 2000 and 2006, but has paid a pittance in fines, which when compared to the company's profits barely even register as a tickle on the wrist, never mind the slap they're supposed to be.

In the lieu of the government acting in the interests of the people it's supposed to represent, the battle for clean air and water, and sustainable energy and jobs is being fought on the ground by those Big Coal directly adversely effects. The struggle of one such community in West Virginia's Coal River Valley, whose homes, land, health, and employment prospects have been blighted by Massey's mountaintop removal mining operations, is documented in a new film, The Last Mountain.

A collaboration between filmmaker Bill Haney (whose previous credits include the Academy Award-shortlisted Price of Sugar) and renowned environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., The Last Mountain should be mandatory viewing for anyone who's ever switched on a light. The film not only tells the inspiring story of the grassroots fight against the Goliath that is Massey, but also underlines our implicit culpability, which can be summed up by one simple yet staggering statistic: sixteen pounds of coal is burned each day for every man woman and child in the US.

SuicideGirls participated in roundtables with Haney and Kennedy. The following is excerpted from the interview with Haney (our conversation with Kennedy is posted here).

Read our interview with Bill Haney on SuicideGirls.com.