The science fiction novel Ender’s Game is best remembered for its primary plot, about a genius child who leads Earth’s forces to genocidal victory against aliens; but it also has a secondary plot line that seems, in retrospect, terrifyingly prescient. While the protagonist Ender is learning to become the greatest space-general in history, his near-equally-gifted pre-teen brother and sister, left behind on Earth, take up politics. Peter and Valentine set up pseudonyms on a global online message board and spar theatrically, building competing followings and eventually real-world political influence. By the novel’s end Peter has leveraged his online clout into the leadership of a worldwide government.
I read Ender’s Game in the mid-1990s, when it was truly science fictional to imagine the whole world connected in a single messaging system, much less using devices portable enough to carry in a backpack. By 2004, my final year of undergrad, I acquired a bulky Dell laptop which was, most excitingly, capable of using the wifi network that had just been installed in my campus apartment complex — and I’d already gone from a hand-coded HTML personal website to a series of blogs hosted on the most obvious choice, Blogger.com. Multiple of those blogs were social affairs, shared with friends, but their connection to people elsewhere on the Internet was entirely mediated by individual “<a href=” hyperlinks. Midway through graduate school, I accepted responsibility for building a website for a conference to be hosted by my home department, and decided to try embedding a new messaging platform I’d heard about: Twitter.
We had allotted ourselves one full day in Denali, and given the alterations to our lodging plans and the persistently rainy weather, it seemed best to spend the time on the longest stretch of established trail offered in the park, the Savage Alpine trail and the adjoining Savage River trail. These were as deep into the park as we could go without paying for guided tours, and they covered what looked like a pretty good sample of the available terrain.
We shuttled to the park visitor center to catch a park-managed bus — an actual school bus, painted NPS green — to the trailhead. The previous night’s sun break was truly over, with misty rain and clouds hiding the ridge lines to north and south as we left the visitor center campus and followed the park road west. There was, still, no sign of the big mountain. The park road climbs from the visitor center through boreal forest, which got patchier as we went higher. After a stop at park headquarters, we disembarked at a joint trailhead for a short loop, Mountain Vista, and the longer climb into the hills, Savage Alpine.
You can get from Anchorage to Denali National Park by rental car, Alaska Railway passenger train, or chartered flight — but we took the bus. A regular service runs from the convention center in downtown Anchorage to multiple stops in and around Denali, about four hours’ drive north on State Highway 3, and it leaves early. C and I hiked our luggage through a light morning drizzle to join a small crowd of fellow-passengers huddled under the convention center portico, and by 7:30 am we were driving north.
We took the highway — the only highway — east out of town and then west towards Wasila, with views of mountains through the cloud banks. Eventually the rain got too heavy, mist rolled in, and the highway headed north and left more developed territory, running between walls of forest that looked, to eyes raised on eastern temperate-deciduous woods, distinctly scraggly. The trees were aspen, spruce, none more than 40 feet tall, rising out of thick undergrowth like bathers wading in the shallow end of a crowded swimming pool. Large swathes of the spruce were dead-looking, gray-brown ghost groves — killed by spruce beetles, apparently.
We landed in Anchorage at eight o’clock in the evening, but it might have been any time from dawn to almost midnight. High-latitude summer light is uncanny enough to a southerner such as me (flying in from Los Angeles via a long stopover in Seattle) when it’s still fully light out at nine o’clock in the evening; but then also a mid-July weather system had swathed the city in low clouds and persistent drizzle, filtering the sunlight down to a high-twilit grey.
C and I took a taxi to a rental apartment we’d planned to use as a base of operations for the trip. I had an academic conference in Anchorage, and we’d taken that as an excuse to fly up a week early and see some sights — Denali National Park, then the vicinity of Kenai Fjords. First, though, we had a day in town to settle in and get our bearings. The rental-apartment host and her husband met us and our heap of luggage on the doorstep of their house — which, in addition to having our apartment in the basement, appeared to operate both as a multi-unit bed-and-breakfast and as the local consulate of the Netherlands. Our host was, it developed, a Dutch transplant. She showed us around: kitchen, living space, bedroom, washing machine and dryer, sofa bed in the living room (I suspect she didn’t realize C and I were a couple), and an orientation to the city via a tourist map on the kitchen table. Downtown was a dozen blocks north, on the other side of a long east-west strip of parkland. We thanked her out the door, unpacked a bit, and then hiked into downtown to the nearest late-night food we could find, by-the-slice pizza with, it turned out, reindeer sausage — how local!
My review of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, a not-unsympathetic exploration of timber poaching on the margins of Redwood National and State Parks, is online (and in print) in this week’s Science.
It’s a good book, following a small group of “outlaws” in the depressed logging community of Orick and the park rangers trying to prevent and prosecute their thefts of valuable old-growth coast redwood from park property. The author, Lyndsie Bourgon, blends that true-crime narrative with bigger-picture perspective on the history of forest management and the global trade in illegally harvested timber. Maybe not surprisingly, it ends up being more a critique of global capitalism than an indictment of the tree thieves, and my review follows it all the way to Full Space Communist:
The book’s unavoidable conclusion is that the problem manifest in timber poaching is not the destruction of a particular tree or the failure of a conservation plan but rather a social and economic system that roots personal identity in wage-earning work (or lack thereof) and that describes a tree by its value as board feet in a lumberyard. Tree Thieves thus suggests that the theft of a tree may be a category error … so pervasive that we don’t know we’re standing in its shade.
Word is that Twitter is selling out to Elon Musk, whose (speculated) plans for the platform are not especially encouraging. On the one hand, Twitter privately owned by a “free-speech absolutist” may not be appreciably less pleasant for a person like me than Twitter as a publicly traded company with some nominal interest in the experience of users besides Elon Musk. On the other hand, this is as good an excuse as any to take a step back and see if I can, finally, log off.
I’m not deleting my account — not yet — but I’m going to see if I can’t get back to something like my online behavior from the era before Twitter was my first social login of the day. Way back in the Obama administration, I posted to this blog (actually, its incarnation on, yikes, Blogger) multiple times a week. I didn’t break my thoughts up into pithy little snippets, or plan longer discussions in strings of 280-character sentences. I just … wrote.
Facebook is a problem. It’s become the only way I’m in contact with a lot of folks, including far-flung family and friends accumulated over a decade of the Academic Nomad life. But it’s also absolutely awful at moderating the news or stopping the spread of falsehoods, and it continues to seek new ways to do unsavory things with the data we put on its servers even as it fails to secure that data. So I’m trying to cut as much of my life out of Facebook as I can, paring my profile there to a point of contact and not much else.
I’ve downloaded my data and done my best to clear out past postings — so many old photos! — and I’m going to use the holiday season to spread the things I used to do over Facebook to a variety of other platforms, which are at least nominally separate entities. I’ve put up a list of those platforms and profiles as my last Facebook post: my Flickr account, which needs something like eight months of updating (!); my Twitter profile; my e-mail and phone number for messaging; and this very blog for longer-form stuff. None of these are perfect solutions; some of them are entangled with corporations very nearly as unlikable as Facebook. But I hope I can use them together to achieve what a Facebook profile does with more control over the negative externalities of life online.
Also, it probably wouldn’t hurt for me to do more quick writing in a space like this one. We’ll see how this goes in the new year.
The world is heating up, and it often seems that the intellectual luxuries afforded to scientists of the past — Darwin’s leisurely publication schedule, Haldane’s dalliances with radical politics — are gone. Lab Girl’s rendition of the daily institutional frustrations of research marks it as a different kind of scientific memoir — but also as a product of twenty-first century science. If you navigate among scientists’ blogs or scroll through their Twitter feeds, you’ll quickly find the same fears and vexations and injustices Jahren describes, intertwined with accounts of the work that excites scientists’ passions. … Jahren does not makes science look like an easy career choice, but it isn’t her job to do so — and if Lab Girl chronicles the real and substantial barriers to becoming a successful scientist, it also makes that life compelling: she shows the fruit that can still grow from the rocky soil of a research career.
OPEN ON Toby Ziegler and Josh Lyman, walking down a hallway in the West Wing.
Toby: Nominee’s out. Merrick—
Josh: Merrick Garland?
Toby: Merrick Garland.
Josh: What, did Hermione Granger turn us down?
Toby: Is she on the D.C. Circuit, or the 5th?
Josh: Aw, you know what I mean. He just sounds really—
Josh: I was going to say WASPy, but sure.
Toby: You work for a Josiah Bartlett.
Toby: Anyway, he’s a good judge. Great experience. Prosecuted Tim McVeigh.
Josh: I just thought we were going to be more, uh, creative.
Toby: It’s a bad time for creative.
Josh: Is it ever a good one?
Toby: The Judiciary Committee isn’t going to end the freezeout for creative
Josh: You think the Judiciary Committee is going to end the freezeout for Merrick Garland?
Toby: Well, they’ll look dumb if they don’t
Josh: They look dumb anyway!
Toby: Gotta heighten the contradictions. Freezing out a boring, obviously qualified nominee—
Josh: You think they’ll crack?
Toby: If they do, we get Justice Merrick Garland. If they don’t, we try again after the election.
Josh: AFTER THE ELECTION?
Toby: It’s nuts, I agree.
Josh: It’s NUTS.
Toby: The Republicans are nuts.
Josh: You’d think people who talked so much about the Constitution would—
Toby: Follow it?
Toby: Are you new here?
Josh: So if they freeze out Merrick Garland, AND we win the election, we can get creative?
Toby: More creative, yeah. Not much, though — because we still might not get the Senate back.
Josh: Jeez. Maybe nominating Hermione Granger would be more realistic.
The challenge with receiving and applying advice is to distinguish real, general principles from what may simply amount to another person’s recollection of a series of events that ended well. … Certainly in academia, as in any career, there are habits and choices that improve the odds of survival from graduate school to tenure. But simply making it to a particular stage doesn’t actually mean that you had all the right habits or made all the right choices — or even know which habits and choices will work for most other people.
In keeping with my established approach to these columns, I actually do circle back around to a way in which you can learn from other folks’ personal experiences, but you’ll need to read the whole thing to find out how.