I moved!

December 7, 2016

For a long time I’ve meant to migrate my website to a platform that would be easier to update (not requiring html coding skills that I don’t have) and I finally did, choosing Reclaim Hosting and setting up a WordPress.org site there. Since that has blogging built in, I’m moving these shenanigans over there. The good news – no more cheesy ads! The bad news . . . I can’t think of any.

I should warn you – it’s liable to be more libraries and politics, less mysteries. Fortunately there are still a lot of fantastic mystery bloggers out there who read much faster than I do and actually keep up with writing reviews.


photo courtesy of Kathy McEldowney


The Soullessness of Our New Machines

September 28, 2016

My fellow-blogger at Inside Higher Ed and an insatiable consumer of books, Joshua Kim, reviewed Tracy Kidder’s new book, A Truck Full of Money, and I’m glad he did because I found the book frustrating and wasn’t sure how to review it. Reflecting on why made me think better of the book and Kidder’s possible purpose. Here’s how I responded to Joshua’s request to “please disagree with this critical review.”

3537cd8d13edd96597563796e41437641414141I’ve finished the book (I got a review copy) and have been struggling to review it because I have the very same reservations Joshua expresses here. I love Kidder’s work. The Soul of a New Machine got at a certain culture with a lot of focus and depth. Home Town looked at lives in a college town – not a single culture at all, but exploring its many sides. Mountains Beyond Mountains was a portrait of a man driven to make the world a healthier, more just place. The trouble for this reader started when Kidder says he wanted to bookend his Soul of a New Machine to show the world of people who write software. As in his other books, he finds someone who can give him a close third person view, a shoulder to peer over. But while he does a good job of telling us about this person, in the end we never know much about the experience of (or the culture of) coding, which makes it hard to find the book’s soul, it’s motivation. It does bear out Anil Dash’s claim that “there is no technology industry” in the way we usually think of it.

Instead, this guy built a business because he could code, made a lot of money, and thinks about how to spend it. Some of his thinking leads to trying new start ups, some is about how to benefit the poor (which, it turns out, is complicated. Homeless people don’t need big schemes as much as they need a pair of socks, and thinking about how to get people socks doesn’t jazz up tech entrepreneurs much).

Maybe Kidder’s point is that this *is* what bookends the soul of the new machine – a kind of grandiose, meandering, but also highly self-absorbed and often wasteful quest to turn software into money, and what that does to a person.

Thanks for asking, Joshua. I wanted more context from Kidder, plus more about how it feels to code but now I’m beginning to think Kidder knew exactly what he was doing. It felt soulless, though I did get to know a smart kid who grew up without many advantages in Boston, made a lot of money, and wanted to do something cool with it. Maybe the whole point is that being hit by a truck full of money can be painful. And when we think of software, it’s not about code, it’s about money.

so done with rage

July 26, 2016

It’s been a long time since I replicated my family’s childhood tradition of sitting up late, eating salty snacks, and watching the Democratic National Convention. But we did it last night, and so I heard Michelle Obama’s speech in real time. There were things in it that should have rubbed me the wrong way: I’m a woman, so I’m going to be all about motherhood and the kids; our forefathers… greatness… greatest country… But nevertheless, she knocked it out of the park.

The annotations sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom (known to Twitter as Tressie McPhD) provided  clarified for me how that happened. Some of it was necessary political rhetoric (the “our forefathers” line being a bell that has to be rung, and I’m with Tressie – “I hate that bell.”) Some of it was shrewd knitting together of a raveled party by using stepping stones from being a proud but worried parent to electing the first black president to electing the first woman president. Some of it was just blunt, hard, but inspiring truth, bringing back the tears I shed the day Obama was elected.

When Trump refers to greatness, he’s referring the power of a country that used enslaved people to build the house he wants to live in. He wants a return ticket to that past. When Michelle Obama tells us about greatness, it’s the greatness we can achieve if we stop equating America with wealth and white folks.This moment in the speech (plus the earlier mention of police and Black Lives Matter in Dallas working to make the kids safe) is what rang my bell in a way that can never be unrung.

That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.

And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.

I can’t improve on Cottom’s analysis, so here it is:

This is a dig at Donald’s nihilism the other night. But it is also saying, hey, there is no great american past. Remember, Obama had just referenced slavery a paragraph earlier. She’s making an elegant case that any allusion to the past is necessarily one that is closer to slavery. We are great now, she says, because we are at least greater than that. It is the idea that for black Americans, this country’s best days are always necessarily yet to come. It’s a stark contrast to the idea that America was only great when, as historian Ira Katznelson said, “affirmative action was white”.

It’s disappointing that we can’t have the kind of barn-burning change that the success of Bernie Sander’s campaign suggested was possible right now, that to avoid catastrophe we have to vote for someone who is firmly grounded in the kind of liberalism that screwed so many people. But getting to that other world will take work, long hard work. Conservatives have done that work in school boards and statehouses and in secret rooms where copy-paste legislation is written. This is ironic, considering the party of “small government” is so much better at manipulating government levers than those who don’t automatically think public servants are trash. We have to get better at organizing while dodging the kind of cynicism and exhaustion that comes with seeing the problems so clearly. Black Lives Matter is working on it. The rest of us need to get to work, too.

Change is hard and rage won’t get us there. Rage is the power-source for Donald Trump’s engine and it will get us somewhere we don’t want to be. If those girls can live in that house built by slaves, can we make this country that began with native genocide and slavery-based prosperity the home we want to live in? I have to hope we can.


I wrote to my senators . . .

July 6, 2016

Here’s what I said. It’s not enough. But, damn it all.

I am writing to my senators on behalf of millions of people who live in daily fear of state-sanctioned terror. They cannot send their children outdoors without warning them to be subservient to authority, to be wary of agents of the state, without reminding them that they do not have the freedom other Americans have to life or liberty or the pursuit of happiness. This is a violation of basic rights that urgently needs to be addressed. Our elected officials should investigate and take steps to prevent the all-too-frequent extrajudicial executions of black Americans by police.

I realize it may be impossible to pass laws or hold hearings in a Congress that has been deliberately broken. I mean, if we can’t even appropriate money to protect Americans from deadly viruses it’s pretty silly of me to think we can investigate ways to protect a mere 45 million Americans from living with fear every day that they or a loved one will be executed without a judge or jury. But I urge you to try.

This can’t go on.

It can’t go on because it polarizes the population and tarnishes the reputation of the nation worldwide. It can’t go on because law enforcement officers who want to serve and protect cannot do so when fellow cops commit the ultimate crime and aren’t punished, making a large percentage of the population understandably unable to trust the police.

It can’t go on because people – men, women, children – are being murdered under cover of law. Please do what you can to seek justice and peace.

Yours truly,

Barbara Fister

Edited to add: another black person was shot and killed yesterday, this time in my own state. He cooked meals for schoolchildren. He had been stopped in his car because a taillight didn’t work. He was loved. Now he’s dead. It can’t go on. But it does, on and and and on …

After the Break

June 28, 2016


So weird to see such similar upheaval in the U.K. and the U.S. and the very strange place that bigotry and resistance to inequality coexist within it. On both sides of the Atlantic we’re seeing the unraveling of established political parties that believed the malarkey of the globally wealthy – that market forces are forces of human nature, that wealth should cross borders but people shouldn’t, that rich people deserve their wealth and poor people just aren’t trying hard enough. That of course we can’t raise taxes, of course private corporations work but public servants are lazy, useless, self-centered bums, that individualism is freedom and caring for others is foolish unless you’re really wealthy and you want to reform something with your extra tax-exempt cash.

Bernie Sanders led an unexpected revolt that almost succeeded. Jeremy Corbyn was elected party leader but is too left for the left and is facing a revolt of his own. Trump is Nigel Farage with Boris Johnson’s hair in a hair-sprayed comb-over. The Republican and Tory leadership are bewildered by the monsters they pieced together from parts and animated with economic shocks. It’s alive! Dear god, now what? The markets are in an uproar that’s nearly as cataclysmic as the average person’s battle to pay their bills at the end of the month, something the market has blithely ignored for too long. It’s a mess.

I’ve long wanted people to recognize how absolutely wrong our assumptions have been and how much terrible damage they’ve done to social institutions and to the commonweal. But what’s scary is that this sudden challenge to the system that created enormous inequality feels a bit like overthrowing a dictator. Toppling the statue feels good, but what comes next? Sadly, too often the vacuum is simply filled with hate – hate toward people who are victims of the same oppression, anger and contempt toward those who feel differently, and no practice negotiating common ground because we haven’t had enough power to practice it.

As a liberal academic, I’m considered part of the elite. Fair enough. I have been lucky. Not especially talented or deserving – lucky. On top of that I’m a librarian, and we have values that are suspiciously left-wing: democracy, diversity, equal access to information, a commitment to social justice and the public good. We don’t always live up to those values, and market fundamentalism has warped our daily practices pretty thoroughly. But we still think information is important.

Caring about facts, evidence, and figuring out what’s true even if it isn’t what you want to be true isn’t a property of elitism. It’s a practical approach to the uncertainty that’s inevitable in a world as complicated as our is. Once you decide facts are a matter of choice, that decisions should be based on what your mates say, that hatred is easier than empathy, that anger feels better than making something or maintaining something – well, this is where you end up. The individualism that was so important to the unequal status quo has left us ill equipped to create an alternative to the thing we no longer believe in.

I’m glad that people are challenging the neoliberal assumptions that have caused so much damage and created such inequality. The big question is whether the damage done to social institutions and communities is so great that we won’t be able to come together to make something that works better.

I hope we can. Because the alternative playing out right now – the sudden rise in hate crimes, the murder of an elected MP, the vitriol being hurled on all sides – is too scary and I think fundamentally we’re better than that. We just have a lot to learn about how to function again. Caring about facts and caring about one another is a place to start.

photo courtesy of Julie Dello


Toxic Shock

June 14, 2016

Like many folks, I first saw the news that the record for the largest mass shooting in American history has been set once again while on social media. Since then it’s been on televised news 24/7 – a break from 24/7 election coverage, except that this horrible carnage is merging into election speeches. One of the things that I noticed as I scrolled through Twitter, which is 24/7 but never one channel, was how suddenly confusing it was. I saw a gory image and the word Bloody Scotland and thought “oh, shit. It’s happened there, too” before realizing no, it was something about a book festival. A book festival that was familiar and fun. But suddenly, not so much.

There’s something very disconcerting about intermingling real carnage and hate with fiction represented in imagery that draws so heavily on blood spatter and guns, with titles and descriptions heavy on death, killing, and terror. I’ve always wondered what attracts people to crime fiction, but right now the glorification of guns and death seems part of . . . I don’t know, some pandemic disease.

The massacre in Orlando is so confusing. Violence is always confusing, but we try to find an explanation: we must do something about mental illness. We have to stop being so stupid about gun laws. We have to stem the politically inflamed rhetoric that encourages homophobia. If we had better intelligence, took a tougher stance, bombed more targets, built higher walls . . .

I’m ashamed that our two leading presidential candidates used it as an occasion to brag about how tough they would be against something one of them insists the current president should say out loud or immediately resign. No, whatever ISIS social media channels say, this wasn’t their work. This was much more complicated. A brown American-born man whose father came from Afghanistan, a brown American man who had wanted to be a cop, a brown American man whose ex-wife says he beat her, a brown American man who had frequented a gay club, a brown American man whose religion is regularly demonized by opportunist politicians, that brown American man took weapons of war that he bought just down the street into a room full of mostly brown, mostly queer folks dancing together and killed as many as he could, which was a lot because he had weapons designed for killing and for nothing else.

Matt Pearce, a reporter who I follow on Twitter, said


(Which, of course, makes it also a story a politician can use in any of a number of ways to promote completely opposed agendas, but also very hard to understand on its own terms.)

The best way of thinking about it that I’ve heard yet came in reply.


I think he’s right. It’s a very large part of why so many Americans love guns. It’s infused in cop culture in ways directly tied to Ferguson and beyond. It’s driving the wild anger among some that most American have no issue with GLBT folks, anger that leads to absurd laws requiring bearded transmen to use bathrooms labeled for women and feminine transwomen to use bathrooms labeled for men where they will be in danger – supposedly to keep women and children safe from pedophiles. When reason fails, bring in the imaginary pedophiles. Bring on the fear that will distract people from thinking for themselves.

It’s toxic masculinity that drives fundamentalist interpretations of religions that use violence and terror to put down women – in fact, to put down anyone who isn’t the right sort of man – and return us all to an imaginary golden age when strong men were in  charge. It’s what makes Trump strut and splutter about warfare and Christian values, it’s what makes Clinton rattle swords to show she’s tough enough for a job only men have held so far.

All hate crime is meant to inspire terror in a class of people. That slaughter in Orlando was terrorism. But it was not caused by that label that Trump insists the president use (and which the president eloquently refused.) My best guess at the moment is that it’s toxic masculinity that made one angry, mixed-up man walk into a store to buy weapons of war – easily available thanks to other toxic men – so he could kill gay brown people whose joy and sexuality threatened him. He knew he would become famous by attributing his actions to a violent, masculine cult about which he knew little apart from shouty slogans and exciting film clips and the power it seemed to have over the rest of the world and his own countrymen who considered him either a loser or a threatening Other.

So here’s what I’ve been wondering about since misreading a Twitter stream and seeing violence where only entertainment was meant. How does a reader who enjoys fiction about people getting killed square it with her pacifist and feminist values? How can I enjoy reading one book after another about murder after 49 murders were committed in a crime that can’t be solved?

I’ve never been a great reader of mysteries that set a crime in an innocent place to be surrounded and smothered by goodness and recipes. I particularly dislike grotesquely violent thrillers that use a good-versus-evil storyboard with lots of blood and explosions so that that the monstrous Other can be defeated over and over. I have generally made the excuse that I’m drawn to “sociological suspense” – stories that delve into social issues in some interesting way, using narrative and characters to explore ideas that are otherwise abstract or dry. But other kinds of fiction can do that. Why am I so drawn to books about people killing one another? Why is that narrative the only one that seems to hold my attention?

Perhaps what I’m learning about society right now is that I’ve had enough of blood spatter and guns and am not interested in seeing it on book jackets or event announcements, however innocently intended. It makes me eye my pile of book waiting to be read with a new wary suspicion that a genre I love carries its own measure of toxic masculinity.





Like I was saying …

June 8, 2016

Julia Angwin asks


The New York Times covers a practice that has been going on since we declared war on terror. If you can’t find terrorists to justify the vast anti-terror apparatus you’ve created, make some, and then make headlines. The authorities, of course, say that they are making sure we’re safe from people who are inclined toward terrorism by getting there before they connect with real bad guys, but this is innocent until proven gullible.

This is the tactic that inspired If Then Else. It’s just wrong, and it doesn’t make us safer.

Of course there are real terrorists. We had two notable terrorist attacks in the U.S. just last year. People who are alienated and stirred up by hateful and apocalyptic rhetoric sometimes act out violently – in these cases, shooting co-workers at a party and people visiting a Planned Parenthood office, violence in the name of extremist beliefs and a sense of righteousness lit with a fuse of resentment. But our unprecedented surveillance regime doesn’t spot these people. Collecting it all doesn’t work. It distracts from focusing on actual threats.

A 2010 report recently surfaced in Britain saying our cousins have so much data they can’t find the needles in the haystacks. One response is to pass laws to increase surveillance capabilities and spend a lot more money on haystack-building and needle-detection. The other is to stop spending so much effort on building haystacks and start looking for dangerous sharp objects that are likely to hurt people. That’s the approach I favor.

In any case, using paid informants to coax people to act dangerous so that they can be arrested and headlines can say that terror plots have been disrupted, justifying even more intrusive surveillance, is a terrible kind of security theatre.