Cory Doctorow – Radicalized

Got this one as a Christmas gift from a good friend of mine and its a very good read.

In 4 short stories Cory shows brief glimpses into small aspects of a possible future. The first story deals with internet-of-things, humans dependency on machines and ways to individually solve problems with such machines and the (corporate) mechanisms behind it. The third story deals with radicalization in internet filter bubbles. And the second one is a completely hilarious thing: The world from behind the eyes of Superman, dealing with racism, police violence and control of the mass by elites. I only started the fourth one before something else took my mind, so I can´t say what this one is about.

His writing style is simple, fluent, unnerving. Storytelling is done with some urgency, there´s always something happening, that leaves sidestories and character depth a bit on the shallow side, but thats fine by me.

This is an unspectatcular but very well written mix of novela and sci-fi with interesting ideas. No wrongs in reading these very good stories.

Ines Geipel – Umkämpfte Zone

Sehr interessantes, absolut lesenswertes Buch.

Ines Geipel erzählt hier 3 Geschichten parallel, episodenhaft über ihr Verhältniss zu ihrem Bruder, über ihre Familiengeschichte, und über die DDR bzw. den Osten nach der Wende. Und das ganze relativ zusammenhanglos, aber immer schön chronologisch.

Über die ersten beiden Themen will ich mich gar nicht auslassen, aber der Inhalt ist auf alle Fälle heftig und sie schreibt das auch sehr schonungslos, konfrontativ. Ich mag das. Generell ist der Duktus des Buches eher wütend, aufwühlerisch gehalten, ganz weit weg von der Melancholie einer Annie Ernaux. Und das ganze auch noch in einer poetischen, aber sehr rauen Sprache.

Über die DDR und später die neuen Bundesländer versucht sie nicht geringeres als eine Psychoanalyse vorzunehmen und das gelingt ihr hervorragend, da gehts um Themen wie Verdrängung, Aufarbeitung, Schuld, Angst. Problematisch wird es aber am Ende, da man vielleicht einen Menschen nach gründlicher Analyse von seien Problemen therapieren kann, aber wie soll das mit einem Volk geschehen? Sie bleibt in ihren Lösungsansätzen (also zB wie man mit dem erstarkenden Nationalismus umgehen soll) sehr vage, das geht leider nicht weit über „man muss es an den Küchentisch bringen“ hinaus. Aber ganz ehrlich, ich glaube da auch nicht daß es eine Lösung per Fingerschnipp geben kann, bzw. ist mir jeder der das behauptet bisschen suspekt.

Sehr intensives Buch über die Geschichte der DDR und den Osten – absolute Leseempfehlung.

Annie Ernaux – Die Jahre

Beim Aufräumen nach der Geburtstagsfeier bin ich dann auch mal zum Geschenke auspacken gekommen und dieses unscheibare Buch war dabei. Annie wer? Rückentext gelesen, hm, klingt jetzt nur semi-spannend. Ich les erstmal die Schachnovelle und leg das mal auf den Haufen zu den anderen noch zu lesenden. Naja gut, paar Tage später war es dann dran und dieses Buch ist der Hammer, vor Hammett und Otremba mein Buch des Jahres.

Annie Ernaux ist 1940 in der französichen Provinz geboren, später Zeit in Paris verbracht, geheiratet, Kinder, als Lehrerin gearbeitet, absolut unspektakuläres Leben und das Buch ist mehr oder weniger eine Autobiographie. Kein Lebensbericht von einer bekannten Schauspielerin, Schriftstellerin, Sportlerin oder sonst irgendwie bekannten Person, sondern eine Erzählung des Lebenswegs einer Person aus der Mitte der Gesellschaft. (kleine Bemerkung nebenbei: Annie Ernaux ist natürlich schon bekannt und als Schriftstellerin angesehen, vor allem in Frankreich kann man mit dem Namen was anfangen.) Da enstand bei mir beim Lesen eine gewisse Verbundenheit, vieles was sie schreibt kann man nachvollziehen und es könnten abstrakt gesehen auch Gedanken, Erfahrungen aus meinem Umkreis sein.

Inhaltlich schreibt sie viel über ihre Gedanken zum Lauf der Welt, dazu noch Emotionales und sie nimmt den leser dabei immer wieder kurz an die Hand in welchem jahr er sich befindet und was mit ihr zu dem Zeitpunkt los war. Im Großen und Ganzen ist es ein politisches Buch, eine soziologische Analyse der Gesellschaft aus linksintellektueller Sicht, dabei niemals plakativ oder anklagend, aber trotzdem natürlich kritisch mit der Weltentwicklung ins Gericht gehend. Mir kam beim Lesen mehrmals die Parallele zu Didier Eribons „Rückkehr nach Reims“ (auch ein sehr gutes Buch) auf, thematisch gibts da viel Schnittmenge, aber Eribon ist halt Soziologe und deshalb teilweise sehr zäh zu lesen. Ernaux hat einen so schnörkellosen, dabei präzisen, leicht poetischen, aber keinen abgeschwurbelten Schreibstil – es ist eine Pracht.

Thematisch haben mir ihre Berichte über die 90er am besten gefallen, Niedergang der Sozialdemokratie, Technologiesierung, Durchkapitalisierung der Welt. Alles auch meine Themen und eigentlich würd ich alles teilen was sie schreibt. Aber auch ihre Berichte aus den 60ern und 70ern sind schwer interessant, diese Zeiten haben für mich immer so etwas mythisches, Zerstörung von verkrusteten weltkriegsprovozierenden Strukturen durch linke Studenten, durch friedliebende Menschen (fällt mir grad Hunter S. Thompson ein der über die Hippebewegung in den USA geschrieben hat) die den Moment der Geschichte einfach auf ihrer Seite hatte.

Und noch etwas hat das Buch in mir wiedererweckt: das Bedürfnis mit meinen Großeltern zu reden und das Ganze auch irgendwie aufzuzeichnen. Geschichte kann man sich aus Büchern oder Wikipedia zusammenreimen, erleben muss man sie selber und Menschen aus anderen Generationen haben sie erlebt und können darüber berichten. Meine Großeltern sind alle Mitte ’30 geboren und mich interesiert schon wie das damals gewesen ist, mit dem ende des Krieges, mit den Russen, der DDR, der Wiedervereinigung und wie sich die Transition nach der Wende für sie angefühlt hat. Zeitzeugenberichte sind schwer zu ersetzen und Fakt ist, daß sie irgendwann nicht mehr live erfahrbar sind.

Also kurzum, das Buch triggert in mir einiges an den genau richtigen Stellen, inhaltlich top, von Anspruch her ausgezeichnet, sprachlich ganz groß, inspirativ, bzw hinterfragt man sich auch selbst gern mal beim Lesen, es hat keinen Durchhänger, lässt einen emotional bischen kalt aber den Anspruch würde ich an kein Sachbuch anlegen. Ich bin begeistert von diesem Buch.

B. Traven – The death ship

A gritty, sinister and highly political book.

B. Traven is one of the most mysterious persons in literature, his identity being unknown for a very long time, the wikipedia article reads like a thriller itself, go check it out. Today it is quite clear that he was a german anarchist who had to go into hiding from being prosecuted by the law.

The death ship was written in 1926 and is told from the view of an american sailor who works as a boilerman on cargo ships. At the beginning his ship leaves without him and paperless he starts an odyssey around Europe to end up in Barcelona where his only chance to find work is on a so called death ship, whose purpose is basically to carry freight from ports to ports but it is so run down an unmaintained that sooner or later it will sink and the company can receive insurance payment. That of course means that the people on these ships are expendable or at least not worth more than the ship itself. To show this pervesity of capitalism is basically the main intent of the book and Traven does well to communicate this to the reader. The, at times unbearable, moaning and accusationof, the hardship of the work, the suffering and decaying of the poor souls being thrown into and stuck into this miserable life is dripping from every page.

I think that the circumstances in e.g. sweatshops in Asia can be compared to this and therefore I´d call this book a timeless description of the lives of the bottom capitalitic society. The machine has to roll and these workers are paying the price for our lush lifes.

I highly recommend this book, but its not an entertaining read.

Uzbekistan

A friend of mine told me last year that he and his family is planning a holiday in Uzbekistan, I thought about it for one second, asked if I could join, they said yes, so here I am.

Thats right, a country thats starts with U and is not the US. Situated in the middle of Asia, Uzbekistan is a former Soviet-Union state which received independence in 1990 and then went the way of many of these states, meaning they had a leader (Islam Karimow) who ruled the country with a hard hand, leaving little room for freedom of the person. If you want you may call these leaders dictators (I sure would), but keep in mind that this perspective is western-centric. But ok, this is no political text so here´s a fun fact about Uzbekistan: it is one of only two countries in the world which has no access to an ocean and is surrounded by countries which also have none, meaning you have to cross two borders to see some seawaves; the other country is Lichtenstein, which is even more unknown and solely exists to serve as a tax haven in the middle of Europe.

I flew from Berlin via Istanbul and my first conclusion from this trip is that I now officially dislike flying. I was never fond of it before but the waiting and sitting around airports and then being cramped into a can with hundreds of other people, it just annoys me. Sure, I can read a book or listen to music, but I can imagine a thousand more pleasant locations to do this. Also, everything is overpriced on airports. And yes, of course theres the environmental aspect (sorry Greta). Also tourists rate pretty low on my list of groups of people I feel comfortable among, somewhere between businessman (which is maybe the second most groups on airports and plans) and drunken football fans. Most of them are ok of course, minding their own business, some are even nice to talk to, but some are arrogant, selfish, with a me-comes-first attitude, these guys who always have to be first at check-in and then take forever to take their f… seats in the plane. I don want to hear their stories (but have to because of the cramped locations), I don´t care where they´re going to or coming from, I want to have them out of my sight, I don´t want to spend time in their vicinity. I´d rather take a one day trainride or a weeklong motorbike trip than a one hour flight. Of course, some locations can only be reached by plane in a reasonable time but next time, I´ll fly business class to have at least some peace and also to pay a more reasonable price, because flying in my opinion is way too cheap and by that I mean that it should cost 5 or 10 times as much (Hello Greta).

Ok, this will be the only ranting part of this text, I promise, just wanted to get it off my chest and it also fits my terrible mood at the end of the flight. So lets start with something useful, shall we.

Tashkent

I arrived at 3 in the morning and fortunately got picked up at the airport and brought to the hotel but then had trouble sleeping so half the day was lost. In the afternoon I joined on the tour through the city, we saw a huge food bazaar, where each foodgroup has its own area (bread, fruits,meat etc.), different smells every 20 metres, but compared to other bazaars I´ve seen much more relaxed. In general people here are kind of reserved, friendly, open, relaxed, haven´t seen any trouble or experienced any nuisance. I´d compare it with an eastern european city but Tashkent has its own touch.

So we took a stroll around town, next day too, visited the zoo (didn´t like that one but I´m not an expert and am also not fond of zoos) and I´m kind of impressed by Tashkent, large open streets, lots of green, buildings that combine the very old, the old and the modern.

Had a very interesting talk today about the history and current situation of Uzbeskistan, the stuff you´ll never learn from wikipedia etc.

The state of Uzbekistan exists since the middle of the 19th century, when all the Khanates. Khanates and Emirates have been the governmental structure till then, both meaning that there was a ruler who had its own small kingdom, the difference being that a Khan is a direct descendant from Dshingis Khan who apparently had a lot of wives and therefore countless of offspring and the males and their offspring were allowed to rule over their designated part of land. Emirs basically had the same power but were no descendants. And there were lots of wars between these kingdoms so I guess that the unification had kind of an relieving effect of the people, their culture, arts etc. A prominent person in the history of almost all central-asia is Timur Tamerlan who conquered a huge area. But ok, for more history, well you know where to find it.

Another interesting thing which got solved by the conversation is that although Uzbekistan has a 90% muslim population and you´d expect it to look like e.g. Iran, the city picture is a different one, I haven´t seen any mosque or a lot of people wearing typical cloth (it will be different in Samarkand and Buchara I think). This is because in the Soviet-Union religion was ‘prohibited’ and people had to perform their customs in secret. After the collapse of the SU in 1990 things were mostly kept as they are and the funding of prayer houses was still difficult to impossible. In Uzbekistan this has led to tensions and even very violent outbreaks in the Fergana Valley were fundamentalists have been opposing this and were trying to form their own state in the state with everything that muslim fundamentalism brings with it.

The most encouraging fact that I got to know though is that after Karimows death and the takeover of the new president Mirzioyew Uzbekistan has become or is on the fast way to democracy. Freedom of speech, freedom of art, economical freedom and so on are all more or less guaranteed. Uzbekistan is opening up to the whole world and does not restrict itself to doing business only with the Russians, the US, the EU or China alone, no, everybody is invited to come here, invest here, people here are curious to see what everybody has to offer. And I wager a bet here: In ten years from now on Usbekistan will be among the top 10 countries which have increased the status on the Human Development Index during this time.

Samarkand

So, on day three we took the train to Samarkand, an old silk road town and once capitol of Timurs empire. The silk road was an ancient trade route from China, India, Eastern Russia to the Near East and Europe and it lasted from way before BC till the 14th, 15th century. Trade was mostly one-directional, spices, fur and of course silk were trade for money and weapons (guess times never changed) but again I´m not an expert and you know where to find more information.

Ok, two days in Samarkand and I´m really impressed now. It is kind of touristy but its not (yet) what another member of our group called ‘disneylandification’, like I´ve seen in other famous spots throughout the world (e.g. Vienna, Rome or some stuff in India). Theres a lot of history here, some impressive islamic architecture. We visited the Mausoleum of Timur and I got some background on him. He was and is the national hero of Usbekistan. Was, because he started his conquering in the late 14th and 15th century from Samarkand and attracted a lot of scientists, prophets and other important people to the area making it one of the cultural centres of the middle asian world. This heroification then took a sharp break after the Russian revolution in 1919 and later the founding of the Soviet-Union. It didn´t fit into the curriculum of the great Soviet-Empire to have local heroes. Only after the breakdown of the SU things changed and Karimov, then president of Usbekistan ‘used’ Timur as a national symbol to fill the void. Timur and his descendants surely left their mark and these can still be seen today.

We visited a museum about the old Samarkand today and I have to correct the history part a bit. Samarkand is actually a lot older. Its roots stem back to 500BC something and for the next 1,500 years it developed into an important and rich town on the silk road with mosques, state of the art houses, sewers etc. In the museum they displayed some ceramics, jewelery and even small glass phioles presumably used for perfume. In 1220 Dshingis Khan and his Horde came and burned the whole city down to the last brick, so heavily that the survivors decided to build the ‘new’ Samarkand in a different place. The ruins of the old town have only been excavated by archeologists in the 19th century. So, back in the 14th and 15th century Samarkand rose to new (in)fame by said Emir Timur Tamerlan who was was more or less a warlord known for his cruelty. It is said for example that he used to built pyramids with the heads of the people from the cities he conquered; when he conquered Baghdad this headcount was supposed to be 70,000… So, ok, the national hero of this country was actually a butcher. From the viewpoint of his people though, a patron of arts, architecture and culture.

So, we´re leaving Samarkand tomorrow, heading for a desert camp where we´ll stay for 3 days and where I hope to shot some night-sky pictures, the tripod is waiting for action. We´re having a great time so far with lots of impressions so its time for some small stuff.

Our traveling group.. We are 10 people, the schoolfriend of mine, his wife, their two kids, the father of the wife and another befriended couple of them also with two kids. The oldest of the kids is 4 years, so this is not the standard holiday, but rather like a funky kindergarten on tour with hilarious and funny moments and the pace is definitely set by the kids. And this is cool all round. Kids are stressful and sometimes I don´t want to be in the parents skin but I admire them. My biggest gain from this trip so far besides all the scenery has been the determination to have own kids. Not that I had it before but the thought has been strengthent somewhat.

Motorbikes.. I have only seen two motorbikes so far and no f… Vespas or motor-rollers, which is really strange. You normally see these everywhere in any big city around the world, especially in Asia, its just the most convenient way to get around fast, but here – no such thing.

Dogs.. Also I haven´t seen any dog, none. You also see at least some of these, either stray or as home animals. Strange.

Food.. The food is great here, lots of meat like in any former SU-state, all cooked well. I especially love Plow and Pelmeni, its Great, as Donald would put it.

Beer.. Ok somehow, the local Sarbast is a good one, the rest so nana.

Nightlife.. You´ll have to ask someone else. I spent the evenings at the hotel talking to my friend whom I see maybe once each year and the evenings when his kids are asleep is the only time he has a free head. Anyways, nightlife I can have back home.

Steppe

So we drove from Samarkand out through grassland and fields to reach our next destination: a jurt-campside far out in the bushlands.

The way was very scenic or at least what I would consider as such. I love being on the road and this very monotonous landscape has something epic, meditative and reminded me of Iceland and especially of Namibia.

On the way I learned from our driver that the ecological disaster of growing cotton has been turned down somewhat during the last years. In the SU Uzbekistan was famous for its huge production of cotton for which the agroengineers took huge amounts of water from the countries biggest two rivers (which led to the drying-out of the Aral Sea, check it out on wiki, its a f… shame) to turn this dry land into cotton fields. So, you see that man-made environmental disasters are not a new thing and are not only a thing of the western world, on the contrary, I´d even say that in communist or socialistic states the ecology is way lower on the political priority list, if not last, than in democratic countries. That is in my opinion due to the obvious fact that in such states its easier to pull through large monstrosities which bring economical gains at any cost (e.g. russian nuclear power plants, the Three Dam project in China or this river detouring here in Uzbekistan) but also because such undertakings are the easy way to even out an otherwise inefficient economical system. Also of course there is no democratic process where scientists or the people have a voice for constructive opposition.

Anyways. The camp was quite unspectacular (compared to Samarkand), more quiet and serene.

We took a small hike into the steppe where we spotted some small wildlife: desert foxes, rabbits, lizards, birds and even tortoises.

Each evening they put up a fire and a local musician performed some traditional songs. Quite interesting. Unfortunately one of the concepts of the owners seems to be to get visitors drunk so there was a bottle of vodka on each dinner table and the other guests made heavy use of it. So after the traditional music part there was disco with drunken people and I ha.. Ok, no ranting, I promised. My nighttime activity was set anyway to trying some star-sky photography and I am quite content with the result although I think theres room for improvement. And either I´m blind or unlucky but there was no milky way visible which would have produced more spectacular results. But hey, we´re born to learn and improve, so see you next time stars with better equipment [for the techies: The best lens for this would be a wide-angle or even better a fisheye with a high aperture rating, something like a 12mm/f1.8. My widest is only a 24mm/f4, so I can improve on that. For taking “static” star pictures you open up the aperture, raise the ISO and set time to max 15s, or even better use a tracking system, I can also improve on that. For “startrail” pictures like below, its the opposite, close the aperture, low ISO and time is the only limitation to the length of the trails. With the same amount of time, the further away from the north star, the longer the trails are.]

It´s our third day here as I´m writing this and today I took a day off, the others have gone swimming to a lake but I stayed here to relax, read, write, slowing down, this is a holiday after all, and tomorrow we´ll be going to Buchara, another city bustling with activity and stuff to do. Looking at the night-sky for hours and being in this monumental landscape gets me into a meditative mood and I´m loading my subconscious batteries. It´s impossible to write down all the things circulating in my head, but here´s some piece of philosophy:

During all my travels I realized many things and especially this one: We are all the same. Some are stubborn, some are angry, some are kind, some do bad things, there are egoist, there are helpful ones, we have different skin colors, are from all parts of this planets, some even seem outworldish, we believe in different gods, some believe in nothing, some are born into safety, most are born poor, some have to fight, some die young, others get old, some get fat, others stay sleek for several reasons – but these and countless more are only superficialities. Deep down inside we are all the same, we want to laugh, seek company, love, want to do something useful, raise kids, have a roof to sleep safe under, we share all those basic needs and wants. This sounds sentimental and esoteric and yes, it is, but in my eyes this is the fundamental glue that makes us human, that keeps us together and is for me, the starting point when thinking about humanity as a whole. It may not seem like it but we are all the same.

(just a quick disclaimer: This thought is inspired by Evan McGregor who elaborates on this during his trip around the world on a motorbike when he and his crew were making rest in a yurt camp in Mongolia as can be seen in the documentary “A long way round” which I love but which is very special. And ok, to be very open now, I have to admit that this was the only time I cried during a movie, I think he does too, because this is a fundamental truth coming to light, a divine moment and I am dead sure that I´m not the only one who feels this way.) Peace.

Buchara

Ok, last stage and after taking the tour around town today I already have enough. Buchara is, like Samarkand, an old silk-road merchant town and has seen less destruction and war during its 3,000 years of history than Samarkand or at least was rebuilt more often so that today here you see more intact impressive buildings (mostly mosques and madrasses (a madras is a quran school)) than in Samarkand, there is even a huge and beautiful minaret from the 12th century.

But anyways, the merchant character of the town seems to be the defining thing here and each and everywhere somebody is selling something and its also more touristy. There is more to see here than in Samarkand but honestly, the buildings (and the shops) are very generic and I can´t really remember which madras/mosques/caravansery/trade house was built by whom and when. Ok, the same accounts somehow for Samarkand but there the sights were more individual and the feel was much more laid back. Also in Buchara a lot of construction is taking place, even as I´m writing this there is noise from downstairs where they are cutting stones and its half past 6. Also our hotel room is small and dingy, the opposite of our spacious yurt. It has a nice rooftop though where I slept one night, the singing birds and the sun waking me up.

[small addendum: I´m two weeks back home now and my postcards haven´t arrived… I gave them to our hotel guy, he said it´d be no problem and now I´m really pissed… Especially because I found out an hour after I gave it to him that the post office was more or less around the corner. Ok, life is an ever-learning process: if you want to have sincerity about something then do it yourself… Anyways, I normally don´t tell names but in this case the bad stuff piles up: So please don´t go to Rizo Boutique when your in Buchara.]

But ok, I don´t want to complain but rather suck things in for 2 more days here.

The last 2 days in Buchara went as expected, took some more photos but the scorching sun did its best to make my head feel like chewing gum. I´m not built for this climate. And also sucking things in only goes smoothly if the sponge in the head is not saturated and in my case it was already dripping. But I won´t complain, everything went fine. The same can be said about the trainride and so I´m sitting at the airport now waiting 6 hours before my flight leaves, I need to time this better next time, but I cigarettes and cola will get me through.

Ok, final chapter. Time for some small stuff again.

Money.. The currency here is Sum and the exchange rate is something like 9,000 Sum for a Euro. So, if you want to be a millionaire you have to exchange 120€ and you´re set. Uzbekistan is a very cheap country, our meal bills for 10 people never exceeded 350,000 Sum and we ate good, pack of cigarettes is around 8,500, beer in a bar 15,000, entrance to sights about 10,000. Getting money here works only via Visa Card or exchange, I brought some Euros and Dollers here, exchanged these and got by fine.

Criminality.. I´d consider Uzbekistan to be a very safe country for travelling, but of course: not doing stupid things applies. I tend to be a bit on the naïve side on this, meaning I leave caution aside from time to time, but so far almost everything went fine (only had a real shitty situation in Namibia but thats a different story). Our host in Buchara told us that the punishment for even small criminal acts like pickpocketing are very, very severe (first time: fine, second time: prison) so I think this has an effect.

Language.. Local languages are Usbek, Kazakh, Tadsckik and everybody understands Russian. In our group I was the only non-russian speaker (even one of the kids could speak it) and honestly it would have been impossible for me to arrange things like they went and difficult to get around. It is possible but speaking russian is a major boost.

Every holiday has come to an end and its the perfect timing in this case. 2 weeks have been enough to see all the touristy sights, our desert stay could have been one day longer and Buchara one less but ok, thats complaining on a high level. I may need one week or more to digest everything, read some more history and yes, this text is still without photos and my counter is at 1,000 so I´ll need two or three evenings to wrap this up.

Before going on this trip and I also wrote it at the beginning, I thought that Uzbekistan is an unremarkable country and of course this is wrong, because this whole area here (I´d also include Tajikistan, Kirgisia and Kazaksthan) is full of history which is mostly unknown to us westerners and in parts also difficult to understand. History goes hand in hand with mentality, religion and mindsets of their people and there surely are differences (actually, according to my schoolfriend and travel companion who studied history the local history is also mostly unknown to western historians or, to put it better, ungraspable because of these mindset differences), despite the we´re-all-the-same. But again, I´m not an expert, an anthropologist could tell you more and in an understandable way.

Ok, now finally the last words, some advice if you also want to visit:

.. read into the history before you come here (if you´re interested in it of course). The sights here are not very well explained and the museums we visited are very basic to put it mildly. We had guides on our tour but the quality varied. So, if you don´t want to overwhelmed by facts, persons, historical dates take some time to get at least an overview (and thank me later)

.. best season to visit? Forget everything from May to August, the heat will be unbearable. Also, because of the continental climate, the winter can be really harsh. So, I guess March, April, September and October may be the best months but I´m not sure about rain periods.

.. language. As I wrote above, speaking russian helps a lot.

And before I forget, there are motorbikes and dogs in Uzbekistan. 🙂

Daniel Suarez – Change Agent

Daniel Suarez is IMHO the best and most important contemporary science fiction author.

His books all deal with relevant tech topics and their consequences on the future of mankind, nothing more, nothing less. Reading his books is not like ‚oh, that was nice entertainment – next‘ but rather ‚Daniel, thats a rather fictinous story you spun there, but it´s still fiction. Or not? Could such things eventually happen?‘

His first book, „Deamon“ deals with an AI influencing the real world, „Freedom“ a follow-up to that. „Kill Decision“ is about autonomous drones and is scary as hell. In „Influx“ scientists which discover breakthrough technologies are adbucted by a secret organization.

All books share the same action-paced, story-driven style, the stories itself make sense and are conclusive. His character development is not the best and the reader should not expect much poetry, this suffers from his action-focused style, giving the books a certain B-movie pulpy feel, so it´s more cheeseburger than dry-aged rib-eye slowly grilled, he surely doesn´t play in the same league as William Gibson or Thomas Pychon. I surely like his style though.

What he does incredibly well is world-building. His worlds are full with technologies which are in development in the real world or could be invented in the future. For example in „Deamon“ HUDs are a common thing; the book was written at a time when Google Glass was a mere speck on the horizon. In „Change Agent“ genetic alterations are common, in the real world, well you know the discussions about designer babies from China… His books are full of that and he casually mentions such technolgies, he doesn´t even rub it in. It´s just great. This gives him a very inventive (you could even say prophetic) touch, his books are thought-provoking and go beyond the stories. He shows a could-be world with all the positive and negative consequences on society, human development, politics etc. and in my opinion this is what sciene-fiction is about (at least the ‚real-world‘ science fiction, for the ‚Star Wars‘ science-fiction other rules apply): to show the dangers and benefits of technology, bring it on the radar and start a discussion about it.

„Change Agent“ is his best book beside „Deamon“ book, I think. The topic is gene-editing and he thinks it beyond eradicating inheritable diseases or attribute enhancement via embryo editing, in fact these things are common in the world he creates.

The story centres about a criminal organization which developed a way to … Sorry, no spoilers today. I want you to read it. In fact, I´d say that with „Change Agent“ there is now no way round Suarez when it comes to contemporary sci-fi. This one and „Deamon“ are must-reads if you´re into it. No excuses. You can thank me in 30 years when you´ll say about a technology: ‚I´ve read about this some years ago. Where was that? In the newspaper? No. a company brochure? No. Ah, now I remember – it was in a Suarez book.‘

Wolfgang Schorlau – Stille Wasser

Wolfgang Schorlau ist der wahrscheinlich profilierteste deutsche investigative Schriftsteller. Bei seinen Werken fragt man sich immer wieviel davon Fiktion und wieviel davon Realität ist. Und da er sich auch keine kleinen Themen vornimmt sondern die großen Kaliber (RAF, Treuhand, Oktoberfestattentat oder wie hier Wasserprivatieierung) verarbeitet läuft einem schon manchmal ein Schauer über den Rücken. ‚Ne, das kann doch jetzt nicht… Das hat er sich aber schön zusammengereimt… Oder ist das etwa doch Realität?‘

In „Stille Wasser“ geht es primär als Detektivgeschichte um den Mord an einer Bundestagsabgeordenten und hintergründig um die Privatisierung der Wasserwirtschaft. Und bei letzterem Thema wird einem mal wieder Angst und Bange, da sich das alles wohl auch so in der Welt abspielt. Private Firmen kaufen die Stadtwerke weltweit, da die Kommunen chronisch klamm sind und aufgrund der neoliberalen Geschäftsordnung ja soundso nichts auf die Reihe kriegen, und dann wird alles dem Profit untergeordnet, koste was wolle, um den sozialen Schaden sollen sich dann eben jene Kommunen oder der Staat kümmern. Ach, es ist zum Kotzen.

Schorlau verpackt das alles hübsch in seine kleine Detektivgeschichte, relativ spannungsgeladen, gewaltfrei, gut zu lesen. Gutes Buch.


Charles C. Mann – The wizard and the prophet

Excellent book, but only for specific readers.

And no, it not a fantasy novel. (By the way, my favourite fantasy book is – sorry for being conventional – ‚Lord of the rings‘. Although I have to admit that fantasy is not my most read genre, maybe because of Grandmaster Tolkien…)

Charles C. Mann is journalist and author and did some thorough research for this one. It is a mix of 2 autobiographies, science, philosophy and politics and circles around one question: How can humanity provide food for 10 million people in 2050?

He does not give an answer to this question but rather shows the approach from two opposite school of thoughts. On the one hand we have the ‚wizards‘, the agroscientists, which believe that this problem can only be solved by raising the efficiency of agriculture. On the other hand we have the ‚prophets‘, the environmentalists, who say that humanity has to reduce consumption and generally speaking has to make the world a more ‚green‘ place.

To delve deeper into these two contradictory approaches he autobiographs two exemplary, relatively unknown persons: Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, the former being the ‚father‘ of agroscience, the latter being the ‚father‘ of environmentalism (well, in the eyes of Mann of course, but he may not be far off). So the first part of the book is about the life of these two men, from childhood to death with an emphasis on how they found their believes and grew into their fields of study. And these two stories alone would make excellent books. Mann seriously has a hand for writing.

The second part explains the scientific backgrounds for the schools of thoughts, never losing touch with Borlaug and Vogt and also details the political, environmental and economic influences on the topic of environmentalism. I think you may find flaws in some of the facts and argumentation chains but overall this also would make a very good book on the topic.

If there is one thing I would critizise it is that the book is in parts dry and stiff to read. Overall it is exemplary for illuminating all aspects of one of the most important question mankind has to solve. As I said, he doesn´t answer the question, he doesn´t take sides (which is another excellent feature of this book). The question of how to feed the world may be far off the normal lives we all live (like climate change) but if you want to have an understanding not only of the scientific framework but also where the mindsets of protagonists from both sides come from – this is the book you have to read, no doubt.


What is left-wing politics

This question has been asked and answered a thousand times so here is my opinion. With my 37 years of age I´ve read lots of political theory, have experienced and followed politics, talked about it and although I sometimes feel conservative thoughts getting through these days (because of age I guess) I manifested a left-wing liberalism in my head as the best political concept. So let me write about my thoughts on it.

There is a strange, mostly unexplainable paradox going on in the world: On the one hand more people than ever are complaining about the social, economical and political consequences of global capitalism; on the other hand this protest seems to lack a coherent vision of an alternative society so that this protest remains silent (on a global scale) or people are adhering conservatism and nationalism which both will not change anything. There is a lack of utopias.

One reason for this lack of “enthusiasm for revolution” is that in the western world most people are satisfied with their lifestyle and at most have fear that it will change. This may seem paradox to the sentence above but it seems to be human nature to be satisfied with an agreeable but could-be-better situation than to risk losing it for the chance of improvement.

Another reason why left utopias are very unpopular is that with the breakdown of the Berlin Wall and afterwards the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the obvious failure of the state-socialist system the self-confidence of people who were left was shattered and sometimes eliminated and it was not “chic” anymore to be left but rather one has to defend and explain himself.

But what is also clear after this failure of a huge social experiment is that it cannot be the claim of the left to put into reality a socialist concepts which includes a powerful state controlling everything. In the times of globalisation and capitalistic internationalization these concepts are obsolete anyways.

One of the difficulties left parties are facing today is that politics these days is driven by (mostly economical) necessities which make reformations very difficult, for example the politics of austerity in Europe cannot be abolished from today till tomorrow because there are many players and obligations in the game. The left may have ideas for a better system but it has to be clear that the obstacles to reach these goals may be too high. It is therefore important to accept that implementing left politics will take time, requires endurance and may even be bound to fail in certain areas.

The abstract goal of all left parties is the transformation of capitalistic economical and social order towards a socialist society. Concerning strategic questions on how to reach this goal the parties differ though: Should the transformation be organic reformatory or revolutionary? Is violence an option? Should there be a state-planned economy or small self-organizing production units? Is the resulting society libertarian or authoritarian?

So, how should left politics look like?

It should stand for strengthening international institutions and for reforms inside them, e.g. abolishment of the security council of the UN (this is an old relic from the Cold War and does not represent the situation of power today), reformation of the international finance architecture (IMF, World Bank, WTO) so that these institutions are not helpers of global companies but become adversaries of them, transformation of the EU towards a social union with more participation of the people. This requires international cooperation of left wing parties since it cannot be done alone.

One of the most important aspects of a global left initiative has to be the reduction of poverty in the third world, since this is the breeding room for terrorism and refugee movements which are problems that will become uncontrollable in the future. This is also one tough if not impossible ask since it requires that the people in the Western countries will have to radically question their lifestyle. Whoever does that will not get votes. It is way more likely that conservative or nationalist approaches will be favored. But I believe that more money transfers to countries in Africa, SE Asia, Central Asian and Central American states in combination with strengthening democratic structures in these countries is the only solution to stop the helplessness and desperation of the people there.

This goes hand in hand with protection of the environment, because climate change is another driver for people becoming refugees. The details for environmental protection are all there – establishing local production to reduce transportation, clean energy, taxes for pollutant industries, production efficiency etc. – so I won´t go into detail here.

Next point is regulation of the internet and internet companies. The obvious thing is to create a worldwide legal and tax framework in which companies have to operate. Today many large internet companies are paying very low taxes because they can set the origin of their “product” in almost any country in the world (guess which ones they choose) which is a scandal. Second, ligitable acts cannot be prosecuted because of different or non-existing laws. But the more interesting point is the creation of a consciousness for the dangers of the internet in regards to solidarity and communicative interaction – a very deep pedagogical task for every society. I haven´t read psychological studies on this but I believe that a generation growing up with Facebook (although this may sound paradox) will become more solitary and will show a lack of solidarity towards each other in real life.

Another task for left parties is the reformation of the working world away from the patriarchal system currently established. In most western states a woman has to make a decision between career and family leading to childlessness or dependency of the mother from the father. This can be done with a reformation of the tax system and more support towards educational institutions.

Another important task is the reformation of the social system. The concepts are also all there: a just tax system and closure of tax holes, empowerment of the lower classes, free education and health systems, controlling or abolishing lobbyism.

Socialism

(This text is completely inspired by the book “The idea of socialism” by Axel Honneth and is more or less a synopsis in my own words.)

Socialism developed as a byproduct of capitalistic industrialization in the early to mid 19th century. After the French Revolution most people realized that they didn´t profit from the egalite-fraternite-liberte symbols and that everything went on as before just with different rulers. The main intent of all early socialist projects (e.g. Owen, Fourier) was to give back economic and social control to the state, to reorganize the economic sphere, to end the poverty of the lower working class and give them a voice.

Besides that early socialists were seeing that the two goals fraternite (brotherhood) and freedom were exclusive and that freedom had to be stripped of its character of being only a means for egoistic fulfillment of desires and expanded to a more intersubjectual context. This binds together with another aspect of criticism which was first objected by Marx – the exchange of goods via the anonymous market. According to Marx this will not lead to a social society because every member on the market only acts out of self-interest and for his own best benefit. If this would be exchanged by an “association of free producers” each member would take more care for the needs of everyone around him and not see his benefit first but that of the whole community/society.

The first step towards the goal of unification of freedom and brotherhood is the acceptance of dependence of each member of a society. Each individual requires the others to fulfill his desires and to be free. This leads to the point were basically there is no more individual freedom but only the act of cooperation with other members of the society can be considered as freedom. But still this cannot be considered as collectivism since it´s still about individual freedom; on the other hand it cannot be considered as individualism since everybody needs the community to fulfill this individual freedom. Acknowledging the others as somebody each is dependent on for his own sake will lead to an understanding of equality and not lead to exploitation or other misbehaving – this brings the three principles of the French Revolution together and is the starting point for every socialist thought.

The socialist idea bears some problems though. The first being that early socialists did not differentiate between different spheres of a society (Liberalism in contrary was much more differential concerning all aspects of society) and saw the problem and solution only in the economical area. By restricting the concept of social freedom to an only economical sphere and leaving out areas like family, political participation or law there is no place for political freedom of each and on the other hand a common will (like in democracies) has problems to manifest itself. This problem was later solved by adding “democratic” to “social” but still the gap between attaining social freedom via cooperative production and individual self-determination remained.

Another point of criticism is self-reference of the early socialist thinkers. They had the presumption that the working and the lower class were basically waiting for somebody to free them from feudal and capitalistic production towards a society of free associations. There was no empiric evidence that these thoughts were widespread. This opens the door to theoretical capriciousness because the thinkers only assumed what the people want. It has later been shown (by Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School) that there has also been a tendency to Authoritarianism amongst the working class in the 19th century and that the assumptions of Marx et al. had no real empirical foundation. But of course this can be said about many theoretical political concepts. For today this leads to two conclusions: Either socialism will stay an only normative concept which has to defend against other concepts but with no political impact or substitute groups for the working class have to found with which the ideals of socialism can be put into reality.

The biggest flaw in the early socialist concept is its deterministic and theory-laden view on history though. Marx and his predecessors thought that society will naturally develop into socialism without much ado from the people. Marx thought this for two reasons: First because the main driver of social development is class struggle, meaning that on each step of evolution the former bigger but politically unrepresented group will be in charge and that with the ruling of the working class history will come to an end. The second thought is that social development is a linear process of thought-based environmental control and the next step from the capitalistic way of production has to be the socialist community-based one. These both assumption lead to one conclusion: Socialism is determined to be the next step in social development and the old system has to be abolished completely or to put it bluntly: There can only be revolution. This leaves no way for experiments or reformation and this can only bring illness and is more or less bound to fail.

This either-or thinking also extends to Marx understanding of capitalism. The foundation of capitalism is the market with its horizontal exchange of goods between marketmembers. According to Marx this has to be completely abolished and exchanged by a vertical approach of state-controlled planned economy without giving the market or capitalism the chance to reform. One way to revive the idea of socialism is therefore to undo the equalization of market economy and capitalism.

One of the most important tasks of socialistic theory today has therefore to be to cleanse the construct of market from all capitalism-specific additions to test it on its moral capacity and integrity. For example by analyzing specific markets on their feasibility of free pricebuilding or if the state should regulate them. Or by deconstructing assumptions and premises of economical theory, e.g. does a higher income motivate a person to work more efficient or why is it allowed to make a profit from speculation on the stock exchange although these profits do not benefit the society as a whole?

Also socialism has to get rid of the idea that it only represents the proletarians or the working-class; the group of recipients has to be extended to all people with precarious jobs (science industry, arts, low-paid jobs). The gap between rich and poor is extending continually and the idea of socialism should be attractive for more and more people.

Another task is to extend the concept of social freedom to other spheres of the society like family and development of democratic opinions and not just see it as a problem of the economical sphere. And here one should not follow the liberal tendency and put an emphasis on the free development of each individual but rather establish a common sense of informal togetherness for the benefit of all.

The answer to the question whether the idea of socialism should be established locally or globally cannot be an either or, it should be both. Globally socialism should follow the role of successful NGOs like Greenpeace or Amnesty International and should be an international connected representative organ which pushes ideas of social togetherness and freedom. On a local scale there are of course political socialist parties which should fight politically for the concept of social freedom and implement it into the democracies but not go for a revolution like the thinkers of the first days implied. Also the public should be won for social experiments and the voices of the so far unheard should be included in the democratic process to find solutions for their problems.

Only if every member of the society can satisfy his need for emotional and physical intimacy, economical independence and political self-determination in a way that he can rely on the help and interest of his partner in the interaction, our society could be called socialistic.