Rejiquar Works 2015-04-21T03:22:36-05:00 copyright 2015 Sylvus Tarn Sylvus Tarn 2015-04-07T00:00:00-05:00 read what (science) you love, kittycat coat genetic links 07apr2015

Ooooh, more controversy:)

Via pharyngula, a post by scicurious, about favorite versus ‘good’ books. I know exactly how she feels. Being smarter and more disciplined than I am, she banged her head against this wall far longer than I have; I couldn't stand the amoral people in Vanity Fair, and gave it up. The biggest thrill of Tess of the d'Ubervilles (besides the admittedly fascinating bits about dairying—being a milkmaid was hard work!) was recognizing the basis for some Harry Potter characters (Voldie's folks, for those of you who are curious). I did manage Willa Cather and T.S. Eliot (I think?) and they were ok.

Honestly, this is the only good reason in my opinion to read stuff that doesn't thrill you, one way or the other: reading the old classics to see how they've informed stuff you do love. (Harry Potter fandom was the reason for reading HP & its antecedents, frex.) Or: I've wasted an incredible amount of time reading about the Beats, a) because they're a major cultural influence in the early 50s milieu my kittycats live in and b) cuz I recently picked up somebody else's 50s kittycat graphic novel in which the Beats play a part and I was trying to nail down exactly who the authors were riffing. Cuz I don't really wanna read a bunch of disaffected, experience-seeking druggies-car thieves-all-around-flakes who keep impregnating women then deserting them, and that, summed up, is the Beats in general, and On the Road in particular. I have a feeling, though, that some day I'm gonna have to read the damn thing, for research. C'est la vie.

I haven't read any of Weintraub's suggestions (though I've read other things by Feynman—his Six Easy Pieces, as the title implies, are pretty accessible, and would someday like to read Darwin.) Of Sci's recces, I enjoyed The Girls of Atomic City and The Immortal Henrietta Lacks, and was unable to finish Galileo's Daughter, despite receiving it as a (sigh) hardcover xmas gift. And I actually consider myself reasonably literate in the sciences, for a layperson. Certainly I devoured Stephen Jay Gould, and it took years and years of his Natural History magazine columns and many of his books before I really got it through my head that no, evolution is not directional. This is still a misconception for most people, but I think Gould is considered kind of dated now; and you could perhaps get the same thing from Peter & Rosemary Grant's wonderful The Beak of the Finch. These researchers have tracked every single bird on one of the most remote of the Galapagos islands. For decades. I was lucky enough to hear them talk about this book, at one of our community reads projects, one year.

Also seminal for me was Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Despite not being able to finish the follow-up Collapse (after purchasing it in hardcover, mind you), and some controversy about the author, I found Guns an incredibly useful model for thinking about why some cultures seem to pull ahead technologically than others. (Hint: it's not because they're smarter/stronger/better.)

I'm not sorry I read Hawking's Brief History of Time, and though I can't say I retained as much as I would like, I didn't understand why people found it ‘too hard’ to finish. That said, the guy who writes physics from his dog's point of view is super-accessible and easy to read. On the other hand, if you want a challenge (just a little bit) I'd try Sean Carroll's The Particle at the End of the Universe. To be honest, I don't recall exactly whether I read this book, or just heard the author's lectures and read articles by him, but I do recall it was with his explanations that it finally began to penetrate that the higgs particle is more an artifact of the field, which is what confers mass than a thing in and of itself.

But, actually, most of my science reading is either via Science News, or online stuff by, yanno, scientists. I liked the former better when it came out every week, but am grateful they're still publishing, and am happy to support them. Originally written for scientists wanting to keep up with the big news outside their particular field, it's a good way to stay on top of things, and given the horrendous state of mainsteam news science reportage, certainly a good antidote to the breathless crap. It's not perfect, but I'd say it's the reason I currently consider myself more-or-less informed.

As for the online scientist articles...well, look at this link TOTALLY EXPLAINING KITTYCAT COAT GENETICS oh-be-still-my-beating-heart, AT LAST!!!<— thank your lucky stars rejiquar's ccs doesn't do shifting rainbow or blink tags, cuz I would totally inflict both monstronsities upon you to express the depth of my glee via pharyngula—cuz I've been wanting this for years, thought I had it for awhile, then the best link got taken down, and now I shall suck this entire page into my computer for future reference, yay. (Though, if the elaborate coat genetics I worked out are now broken, too bad.)

When I'm not busy making art, as is obviously the case here.

2015-04-06T00:00:00-05:00 Sad and rapid puppies are not a cute sf thing. Alas. 06apr2015

So the latest kerfluffle taking place in the (book) sf&f world is the effort of a bunch of USA right-wing sore-losers calling themselves the sad (or rabid) puppies, who managed to stuff the ballot box during the hugo nominations. To the tune of providing nearly 70% of the slate. Because their efforts last year (which involved them being voted below ‘No award’) were so successful.

SF has two major awards, the nebulas (selected by pros, like the Oscars) and the hugos (named for Hugo Gernsback, whose 1920s mag sort of started the genre) which can be nominated by—and voted upon—anyone with a WorldCon (the biggest sf&f convention) membership. In order to open the process to poorer fans, the committee created a (non-attending) category for $40.

I happen to think this is a good idea, actually. And I should note, the outrage isn't coming from the fact that these jokers want a return to the campbellian cishetwhitemale stuff of yesteryear, nor even that they're campaigning for their favorites. It's that they collected a bunch of nominees in-house amongst their supporters, winnowed it down to the 5 slots available in each category, and then told everyone in their cabal to vote that slate.

SF&F was for many years a despised genre, but it's always had the love of the fans. The idea is to nominate your particular favorites. Given that the folks nominating tends to be a relatively small pool, and made up of disparate sub-fandoms, there's a lot of onesies and twosies nominated; it takes a surprisingly small number of nominations to get on the ballot. No-one would've cared if each of these guys had sincerely nominated their true faves; nor even if they'd written blog posts or amazon reviews of whathaveyou saying how much they loved their particular picks to inspire other potential worldcon members to nominate their faves. But telling everyone in the group to nominate in lockstep because of political ideology? No. (Ironically enough, they knocked off a Heinlein bio—and these guys luuuurrrrve them some Heinlein).

This guy, in arguing that a) having been put on the sad puppy slate, he wishes to refuse the nomination and b) doesn't care to be nominated by anybody, at all in the future has explained all the issues so cogently that more than one person has argued he really needs to be nominated for best-related on the strength of the piece for next year; and one of the things he delineates is that fans can be variously defined as people liking sfnal elements in their entertainment; or who like ‘speculative fiction writing’ (that's a fancy term for old fashioned sf books) or, lastly, people who are part of ‘fandom’, i.e. con-attendees. You could make a pretty persuasive argument that, drawn as a venn diagram, the three categories would be concentric circles, with the congoers in the smallest, central one.

I haven't attended a con in years; my subscription to Locus lapsed at least a decade (and probably closer to a score of years ago); the Apa to which I belonged for some 65 issues folded five years ago; and I failed to attend the Worldcon when it was in Chicago, which is actually a less-than-10-hour drive, even though I had the money; currently the closest I can be said to be associated with fandom is the fact that I'm fb friends with a local con. I no longer consider myself part of ‘fandom’ except in the most peripheral way.

But, yanno, when I scored myself in a top 100 list of sf novels I'd read 70–75 of them, enough to put myself in the top 2%; trawling through Black Gate's archives was very much a trip down Memory Lane...or an exploration of stuff I missed the first time around (ooh, cats to go along with pernese/napoleanic dragons & valdemaran horsies—count me in!) —I've read a helluva lot of this stuff, to the point where the problem, more often than not (after, this stuff is too modern/gritty/dark for me whining) is Oh, I read that already. 30 years ago.

Despite the penetration of sf&f culture into the mainstream, I still recall a great deal of hand-wringing about ‘the greying of science fiction’—because all the young people were going to anime, media and like. Even today, media cons, or comic-cons attract attendees in the thousands to hundred-thousand ranges, whereas a typical con gets only a few-hundred. Worldcon, the biggest, gets 10,000. A lot of fen have worked very hard, for a long time, to make fandom more inclusive; and the sad puppies are sad because they have to share.

I for one think sharing is a good thing, and don't want them kicking over the toybox and stomping because they're having a temper tantrum. I'm even less impressed with arguments that they're ‘playing by the rules.’ Yeah, all but the most important one: being a sf geek means you care most about loving sf, and sharing that with others.. I've belonged to enough volunteer orgs that I value all that time and effort donated; these guys’ efforts to destroy that annoys me, cuz I hate waste.

And, of course, I've recently been on a sf/fiction kick. So I suppose this post is part of my pushback. To that end, some links for good recces. Speaking to the books I've actually read (all, what, 4 of them?) I thought the magic system in California Bones was interesting, and the book worthwhile, though it pushed some of my ‘ick-dun-want’ buttons (people getting eaten more-or-less alive in front of their elementary-aged kids, frex); I can unreservedly recommend the Leckie (Ancillary Justice) and Addison (Goblin Emperor) both of which made the hugo slate despite the puppies; the vanderMeer Southern Reach is proving to be very engaging (I've just started on the second, and it looks promising, though I admit the adversarial way in which the protags see the world is depressing, at best.) Scalzi's Lockin is a sfnal mystery with some very funny bits. I'm really wanting to check out the Chinese guy's book (3-body problem), and pissed that this is almost certainly one of the ones knocked off the slate by the slavering canids.

I'm actually tempted to buy a worldcon membership just to add my voice to everyone else's that wants these wankers to understand this is not the way to a rocket—you wanna hugo, get cracking and write some really corking sf. If it's good—even if it's space opera (my favorite author won most of her hugos with space opera...) we, the fans, will read it.

After all that ranting, you deserve some delicious spring equinox/easter eggs.

2015-03-27T00:00:00-05:00 An update on Aiden Meehan's celtic interlace instruction books. 27mar2015

All is not doom and gloom on the rejiquar front! (Although posting may sink back into apathy if instagram starts working properly again, plus I have a deadline and so will need to actually get back to making art, as opposed to merely posting it.) I promised an update on Aiden Meehan's celtic interlace, so here ’tis!

In the 17Mar post I promised an update on the Meehan omnibus volume Celtic Design, 2007, which comprises the Beginner's Manual, Knotwork and Illuminated Letters. The library didn't have the last volume, but I got Celtic Alphabets and his Spirals volumes in lieu.

The short answer: if you're wanting just one book on how to do celtic art, then I stand by my original suggestion, and here's why:

Celtic interlace, at least for me (& I suspect for many other folks) can be learnt in a very linear fashion: beginning at the beginning, with simple exercises, and keep practicing. Meehan breaks the steps down in pretty easy chunks, and for those of you for whom even that's too tedious, tends to include lots of examples, grouped by sub-style, that copying makes for an excellent learning process.

The 1st book covers ‘step’ patterns (with a brief discussion of tesselation); proceeds to key patterns, with a brief discussion of (mostly) free-form spirals, finishing up with letterforms. Of course, when people talk about Hiberno-Saxon art, what they usually mean is interlace, and the second volume exhaustively covers that. As I mentioned last time, I particularly liked the 10 page index of some 60 triangular knots (some isomorphic, which is nice, because it gives a sense of how variations can be achieved). I found I preferred to copy self contained knots, rather than the repeating borders, so this was super-helpful.

The third book, on lettering, the library didn't have; but I suspect it starts out with an even more thorough discussion of letterforms, and how they can be dressed up. If it follows the pattern of his other books in the series, he'll have a lot of examples grouped by style towards the back, something I find most extremely helpful. The celtic alphabets book I did get was comprised of 16 alphabets, of which my fave was definitely the first, the eel capitals. Meehan has dressed his creations up in two colors (sort of a Chinese red and black) and each letter is big, 2 inches or so. Half-uncial, to modern eyes, only really comes in a lower-case, so only the first, enclosed in squares, is capitals. My faves, and the strongest designs, were the interlace.

I also got his book on spirals. Probably the first two-thirds is fluff, his musings on the spiral as it appears in various cultures, and it didn't (to my admittedly relatively art-historic untrained eye—that minor was many years ago) look heavily enough sourced for academics, and the artsy-fartsy sorts who merely want to learn how to celtic are likely to be impatient with it. However, the latter part of the book, which he painstakingly lays out various spiral forms with compass, is pure gold: lots and lots of lovely spirals, with, again, a nice collection of samples, arranged by type, so you can see how the variations took off each other.

For beginners, or adventurous folks wanting to give all that compass and rule stuff a miss, his eyeballed versions in the beginner book is good enough to get you going. And I found, left to his own devices, the artist himself seemed perfectly content to approach this content in a more intuitive manner. But I was very glad to find this reference.

And speaking of black and white, something that, like my desire to learn interlace, has been in the queue.

2015-03-26T00:00:00-05:00 Review of Francesca Haig's _The Fire Sermon_, an apocalyptic novel about linked twins, alpha & omega. 26mar2015

My energy levels have been kind of low, probably because I'm fighting off whatever upper respiratory tract infection that's laid f2tY low; so I've been doing more reading. I heard about Francesca Haig's The Fire Sermon (which I immediately nicknamed Omega in my head owing to the striking cover design) via [someplace or other, evidently not Whatever] & decided to check it out.

There's a lot to like about this book. I was immediately entranced by the setup: in a post-apocalyptic world, everyone is born twins, perfect alphas to always-disabled omegas. Omegas typically are missing something—an arm, a leg; or they have too many arms or eyes—or visions. Seers, visibly indistinguishable from alphas, see visions—of the blast that destroyed their world; glimpses of the future, sensations of others nearby—but are still considered omegas.

Always born in pairs, the alphas cannot simply destroy their disabled halves, for as they are born together, so they die (and suffer intense pain) together. But alphas can—and do—marginalize their twins, branding them, taxing them nearly to starvation, driving them (literally) to marginal lands, prohibiting them from meat, pets, and, not surprisingly, education.

If this all sounds a bit like the dynamic Baptist's enslavers enforced upon their victims, then you'll begin to understand why I thought this was an absolutely brilliant metaphor for the inequalities persisting in our society. —The story is told from the point of view of an omega, a seer, who is nearly alone in her dogged persistence in seeing everyone, alphas and omegas alike, as people to be saved. Again and again, when either alpha, or even omega says, there was a death, or 10 people died, she corrects them: two people died; twenty people died.

Perhaps this is because she managed to hide her disability (and no-one, least of all Cassandra, characterizes her ability as anything but) till she and her twin were 13, and thus is able to form a bond with her twin, unavailable to those split at birth. But as the book progresses, she slowly realizes that this is the dream she wishes to achieve: alpha and omega, living together: unsplit. —Just as her brother (twins are always opposite sex) is determined to divide the world ever more harshly, for it is his policies that force omega children out of their birth families at ever younger ages, and require ever more draconian record-keeping of omegas and ever harsher taxes and demands upon them.

So there's a lot to admire, here. I particularly appreciated the way Haig depicted how oppressions affected the poor and middle class alphas, as well as the omegas. We tend to forget, for example, that poor and middle-class whites who wanted to help blacks in the Jim Crow south were brutally intimidated from doing so. Nevertheless, despite the clear prose (the author is a poet), I found my attention wandering, frustrated with the pacing, which went on at length during Cass’ 4 years in a windowless, grey prison room; or her and her companions’ travails through blasted, marshy landscapes, hungry, thirsty and dirty. Cass spends most of the book running away from her enemies, her politically powerful brother and his ally, the mysterious, powerfully telepathic seer and Omega, the Confessor, whose mental probes follow Cass wherever she goes.

And though I loved the primary concept of the world, (and the fact that the relationships focused on siblings, rather than the more usual lovers/friends/parent-child bonds) I found some of the details frustrating. Haig gradually reveals that the long nuclear winter has extinguished most large animals (Cass & crew don't have to worry about mountain lions, wolves or bears) and many plants. Pigeons and chickens are practically the only birds left, as she recalls with wonder a ‘Before’ picture with ‘over 300 species’ some smaller than an egg, others with wingspans the size of a table, a now unimaginable thing.

Which all makes perfect sense. But what I then wondered, if the council promulgated for its own purposes a strong taboo on Before tech in general and electricity in particular, just exactly how did their society function? I mean, they obviously had horses, cows, harness, steel knives and plowshares. There was paper for posters, and, one presumes, printing presses for making lots of them, since they appear too quickly and comprehensively to be made by hand. There was fabric and looms to weave it on, evidently. There did not seem to be guns, even flintlocks. —So I had a difficult time pinning down the tech level, which didn't quite seem to mesh. A little more detail would have been helpful, particularly in view of the taboo, because I didn't really see it play out, except as it very specifically related to Cass.

For similar reasons, the title bugged me, because there is no religion in this book. As an atheist, I have no spiritual beef with this, but it beggars belief (ahem) that these people, traumatized by an appalling, nuclear blast that some of them still see (the ‘Seers’), who are always born twins whose lives and deaths are irrevocably tied, do not have some sort of folk tradition to explain this crucially important part of their lives. It's not as if they've forgotten that this is a new thing since the blast, never minding the fact that animals are still born in the old way, unpaired. Since the powers-that-be are actively suppressing technology and education (so there's no in-universe scientific theory), I imagine there would be a number of religions springing up to explain this new order (and being used to justify the terrible oppression of the omegas.)

Indeed, one would expect the omegas to have a freedom version (just as US slaves had one of christianity). Even if the council didn't want religions (though one would presume they'd co-opt them for their own purposes, but let's assume some die-hard atheists, or something) you'd still expect there to be suppression of said faiths. Given that the book is called The Fire Sermon, one would particularly expect this. But nope, nothing of the kind.

There are some other nits. We have all these mutations, yet people always fall into the male/female divide? Seems unlikely, as that doesn't always happen now, without a bunch of mutating radiation to screw things up. It's not as awkward as Pullman's human/daemon convention (straights have opposite sex daemons, but gays same sex ones; what about bis and aces?) but it's definitely heteronormative. Overall, a very interesting setup, a good twist at the end (though readers brighter than I am will probably spot it sooner than I did) and, evidently two more books in the pipeline. As this is a first novel, I'm very interested to see where Haig takes this, and I expect the pacing/plotting ride will improve along the way.

2015-03-25T00:00:00-05:00 Reading history is good for you. 25mar2015

Northern white abolitionists are often castigated today for their racism, and rightfully so; but I can't help thinking they focused on the damage slavery did to (white) society in general and slaveowners in particular because they were pitching their arguments to other white people. Blacks had no problem whatsoever understanding slavery's evils. They didn't need to be persuaded.

More than a few people have speculated what our descendants will find willfully, obviously blind in us. As a sf&f reader (& would-be author) I've thought about this as well, and I've come to the conclusion that there probably are already those out there pointing out our society's problems, which I tend to suspect will fall into several basic categories:

  • Treating our fellow humans with decency and respect
  • Treating other living creatures with decency and respect
  • Living a sustainable lifestyle (treating everything with decency & respect...)

It's not as if, after all, people didn't know slavery was wrong, and though racism was rampant, not every white person suffered it. (John Brown, frex, came of a household that did not.) It's not as if Anna Sewell didn't write Black Beauty, and Marshall Saunders the similar Beautiful Joe (about a mutt) to argue ethical treatment towards animals—well over a century ago. We know that factory slave labor, factory farms, the prison-industrial complex, and wars of conquest colonialism “imposing” democracy are all bad things, as is using up the earth's resources faster than they can be replaced.

But even people that personally hated slavery went along with it, because the powers-that-be terrorized dissent in every way it could. —And that is why I think Baptist's book is so vital: it illustrates how systemic this system of oppression was. It took a lot of effort, ultimately a horrific war to end, officially, USian chattel slavery, and it was, ultimately, only ended as a society-wide decision.

It's my belief that the ills that plague our society also will only end when we address them as a whole society. IOW, me composting black and white paper is not enough; there need to be laws that ink on all ephemera be non-toxic, that “plastic” be truly compostable, and so on. (Toilet paper and paper towels are responsible for something like 75% of paper should we be investigating bidets/Japanese toilets for all public spaces...?) The discrimination running rampant in our society has to be addressed on society-wide levels. The theft of other nations’ resources needs to stop. (If we didn't need all that T.P., or other things, perhaps we would share more.) These are not popular ideas in a culture that prizes individualism, independence, and self-reliance above all, because they point to an interconnectedness we mostly don't wish to acknowledge.

And I believe, Baptist's The Half has Never Been Told is a striking and powerful argument for these changes, and that is why I think people should read this book.

Hard as its truths are, I consider them a gift.

2015-03-24T00:00:00-05:00 A review of Edward Baptist's brilliant _The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism_. 24mar2015

Just finished Edward Baptist's brilliant The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism yesterday (unlike the previous entry, which I actually wrote in the beginning of March...), and wow.

This is the book that formed the basis of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument “The Case for Reparations” (which more properly is The Case for Making a Case for Reparations). In it, Baptist explains why the currently popular argument in some circles—that American chattel slavery was on its way out and we really didn't need to fight a war over it—is specious, and economically indefensible.

Summed up, slaves, after land, was the second biggest chunk of the US economy before the Civil War. Moreover, free labor was not more efficient than whip-driven slave labor, which could pick 200 lbs/cotton, versus 120 as the absolute max, and that was with 90 odd years of improvements to make it ‘more pickable’.

Little asides, such as the fact that slaveowners (Baptist calls them enslavers, just to make the roles very, very clear) beat the best more than the slower—even pride in their work was taken from them. Again and again this text weaves very human anecdotes between the economic charts and lists; lists of how slaves’ height varied over place and time, as their masters became ever more brutally efficient at extracting yet more labor; lists of families sundered (again and again, over and above the terrible physical mistreatment slaves endured was the continual rending of their family ties: that theft hurt the worst) as prices for human flesh fluctuated; lists, of course, of cotton: how much slaves picked over time, its prices over time, the demand over time, the dependence of the south on it.

The industrial revolution all started, more or less, with good british wool, but they soon switched to cotton. Cotton grown on land stolen from Indians, and with labor stolen from Blacks, fueled the industrial revolution, and was the bedrock on which a young nation developed. Until the US comes to terms with these two ugly pillars on which our country rests, I don't think we'll ever really ‘get over’ racism, and those are bitter truths.

Baptist has divided his book more or less chronologically, but his focus shifts, from the horrors the slaves themselves suffered to the political wrangling warped by ‘the peculiar institution’. If you like reading about backstabbing, awful people doing themselves in, then those bits will read like a thriller. (I typically loathe reading about such people, but I found the political stuff gripping, in a way I seldom do. Frex: in the 1830s, southern slaveowners formed their own banks, to trade and sell securitized mortages backed by slaves, in much the same way crappy housing mortgages were pooled in the aughts; and with exactly the same disastrous consequences. Southern states, which promised to back these overpriced securities, defaulted on the loans—literally reneged them by retroactively changing the law. As a result, overseas investors, e.g. France & Great Britain, became very wary of that region, and owing to a lack of capital—combined, of course, with the deliberate un-training of much of the work-force—meant the region has, overall remained underinvested, under-educated and very poor, a pattern that persists into the 21st century. Talk about reaping the whirlwind!)

But it's always the individual stories that ultimately stick with you. An example, culled from WPA interviews of old slaves in the 30s, or autobiographies from escapees: A man, good at a trade—say woodworking, or perhaps blacksmithing, and proud of his skill—is sold down the river, now a mere field hand, picking cotton. He can almost keep up with the hoeing—the overseers having developed this diabolical system of lining people up in rows, with the slowest being whipped to keep up with the fastest; but he's hopeless at picking. (Women were frequently the fastest.) Even so, he's coming back to roll call at the end of a long day, when the exhausted woman to whom he's talking, a baby on her back, walking with him, suddenly starts to run. He tells she doesn't have to. She does, she says. She knows what's coming.

Too late, she misses roll call. So she gives her baby to another slave, lays down in the beating place on the ground and is whipped till she dances and jerks—not for failing to do her work, or running away, or ‘sassing’ —for being late to roll-call. The new guy, who's delayed her, is given a pass—this time—since he's new. I couldn't help thinking the overseer did that deliberately, to foment bitterness between the older slaves and him. There was this ...myth? hope? assumption? that if a slave worked really hard and did everything just so, they'd be okay. Not great, but ok. But Baptist went through overseers’ records, and discovered that the most efficient workers were beaten more. The mind boggles at these guys keeping careful records of such, but what became ever more clear, over and above the horrific tortures the slaves endured, was the way it turned the enslavers into monsters.

The cognitive dissonance must have been astounding. It was astonishing. It still fogs our understanding today, with all these desperate caveats that slavery wasn't so bad, that the civil war wasn't about slavery, that we would've gotten rid of it. Um, no. It was a cancer, that would only grow till it consumed everything. I think if I could recommend only one history book for people wanting to understand the US, this would be the one. It's that good. But I think there's an even better reason to read this book, an argument I'll make next time.

And as a unicorn chaser, another giftwrap.

2015-03-22T00:00:00-05:00 =review= critique of Chuck Gannon's _Fire with Fire_. 22mar2015

So I read skimmed read the first 50 pages and much of the last 50, skimming inbetween Chuck Gannon's Fire with Fire, which I'd ordered through interlibrary loan after the marvelous experience I'd had with Sarah Monette/Katherine Addison's Goblin Emperor. The Gannon was either a nebula, or more likely, hugo nominee, so after checking out some reviews on amazon I figured, why not?

I was prepared to like the book. Given that I'd just had a giant-ass filling replaced, I was achey and not feeling very productive, so I hopped into bed right after dinner, hoping to have an enjoyable evening (just not so enjoyable I ended up staying up till 2 or 3am....) And, if you're wanting some good old Campbellian 50s sf in which the men are square-jawed, the women are gorgeous, and the aliens assorted, then it's quite likely you'll enjoy this space-opera.

If, however, you are a woman or PoC (or, heaven forfend, both), you may find the book problematic. I was dubious from the first page, in which ‘[t]he Taiwanese captain bowed quickly’, ‘felt sweat rising to his upper lip’ which quickly becomes ‘thoroughly wet’ as he's dressed down by an American admiral and a ‘tall thin Englishman’. As what is clearly a fubar of the first order progresses, the Taiwanese assures all can be made well in a mode ‘deferential and enthusiastic’. Add the ‘Chen had come to the conclusion that Western commanders were not particularly good at fixing underlings with stern, even terrifying, stares. Now, looking into Nolan Corcoran's blue eyes...’ and you have what is not a terribly promising beginning.

Now it's entirely possible that Chen is your run-of-the-mill over-enthusiastic cop-type, and we've certainly had plenty of stories of those. However, the victim, Caine Riordan is a highly respected (white, male) journalist, so that kinda doesn't fly. —Nevertheless, there are some crumbs of sympathy for Chen, who at least takes responsibility for the mess (despite not being present) and who is perceptive enough to realize that there are heavy political undercurrents to which he's not privy.

So I kept reading.

The novel centers around Caine Riordan, journalist, who is re-animated 13 years later, and who, since he's a “polymath” is sent off to a distant planet to investigate wrongdoing by a big corp there, which might be suppressing local indigenous people. We have a set piece or two to show that Caine, unlike his bosses Corcoran and Downing, (honestly, Downing is the british guy's name?) is a straight, honorable arrow, not shifty and sly like his spymastering bosses. He even chokes a bit lying to the evil corp boss—at first. Despite the author's efforts to convince me that Riordan remained as pure as the driven snow, his character seemed as amenable to political exigencies as any in the book, once it was truly clear to him what the stakes were. —Admittedly, perhaps if I had read the book more carefully, I might have been more convinced.


I did read it until I hit the speedbump of Ms. Rakir. Ms. Rakir, we are informed ‘drove the Rover as hard and fast as an adolescent male overdosing on testererone, but her voice and movements...were as smooth and unhurried as those of a pampered contessa.’ Contessas are pampered...but counts weren't? She makes a joke about women drivers. (Alert readers of this blog will have noted my glee in the fact that women-driver jokes have mostly disappeared out of [my] milieu in the last 20 or so years. Remember, this book is set a century in the future, in 2118.) ‘Everything about her was suggestive curves: her body, her lips, her eyes, her face.’

Quite apart from the dreadful writing (even I know enough to realize that ‘everything about her suggested curves’ is a more—ahem—graceful phrasing) note that we start with her body and mouth, which in this context is reduced to a sexual organ, ending with eyes and face. She sways, she (attempts to) seduce, with a blouse (gasp!) open two buttons from the collar (dunno about you, but I see all sorts of staid office ladies with their shirts this open in my midwestern state, let alone the stifling, 100% humidity/120 degree heat of this planet) and whoa!, her shorts end two handspans above the knee—‘provocative,’ we are informed, ‘without being outrageous.’ Ick, catholic schoolgirl vibes, anyone?

No word on what Riordan Superman is wearing, of course.

Riordan eagerly enters this sexual battle of the wills:

‘"And what do you do? What is your job?"

She almost stuttered. You'd decided I was a gentleman—wouldn't interrupt, sure to be susceptible to a slow seductive dance, out of good's where the game changes.

The highlighted part is our protagonist's internal dialog, by the way; and believe it or not, they're meeting in a professional context: one job she has, obviously, is ferrying around VIPs in the outback of this planet. But as a high-level employee, she should hardly be surprised into stuttering incoherence by a question about her career! It's almost expected, therefore, that Riordan speculates that she achieved her position ‘on her back’ since she's (horrors) on a first name basis with the CEO and so, Dear Reader, by the time our hero calls her a ‘supercilious bitch’ I was done: I started skimming this book.

But I wish to point out this sexism is not just off-putting to those readers outside the author's target demographic of testosterone fuelled white males; it's also just plain bad writing. If Riordan is so brilliant and polymathy, his libido, it seems to me, ought to be shrivelled by what he knows to be this woman's greed and callousness, since she outright tells him she comes from oil-baron stock and is doing everything in her power to continue the tradition, up to and including slaughtering intelligent natives (let alone other native plants and animals, which since they are earth-compatible, could be a wealth of information beyond mere crude which in this universe is no longer needed for energy.) And, sigh, the paleolithic natives exist a patronized plot point. Ugh.

In other words, the failed femme fatale is portrayed as inflexible and stupid and her prey is almost as bad. Compare her to the equally beautiful—and short!—sexpot Miles Vorkosigan is paired with in a similar set piece when he's investigating a corrupt corp in Cryoburn —that woman, upon learning Miles is happily married, immediately switches tactics, which not only reflects well on her individual character, but also suggests a) her boss is bright enough to send the very best against Miles and b) which therefore reinforces Miles’ status: because his antagonists are bright and beautiful, we, the reader, assume he is too.

But in this book, they're just eeeeeevil. —That's what I mean by the sexism being bad writing. Why would a presumably sensitive, flexible character want to bang someone he finds loathsome— unless it's merely a dominance game, and does our author really want the hero to be edging from slut-shaming into active rapine? Remember, he's supposed to be the noble sort that will save a child in the middle of a critically important mission.

(The author subverts the character's efforts to do this in ‘real life’ as opposed to a sim, later in the book, killing off hundreds or thousands despite Riordan's best efforts to save them. We're informed that most of the victims were inmates on death row, anyway, but I found this choice...disturbing. Seems like slotting these folks into someone's possibly-fatal scenario without consent [and we know this because the man responsible delays telling the prison authorities their fate] violates rights even death row inmates have, never mind the whole cruel and unusual thingie.)

There's another reason the treatment of Rakir really bugged me, which is that it cast some of the other character interpretations in a negative light: as I mentioned in the beginning of the review, I was dubious about the treatment of the Asian character in the first chapter, but willing to give it a provisional pass. After Rakir, I just presumed racism (or at the very least, prejudicial stereotypes, which I suppose is a wordier way of saying the same thing).

Moreover, this then poisoned the well for other Asian characters later in the book, who are putatively portrayed positively, but come off badly (inscrutable and subservient, respectively) because I was no longer able to deny the author's subconscious bias. I mean, the Chinese guy is named Ching. Really? Naming someone the UK equivalent of TheWhiteHouse was unimaginative, but at least not actively pejorative. (The father/mentor figure, Corcoran,—HeartHeart—is just plain corny.) And no, Ching is not a common Chinese name. If the author wanted to name China's top diplomat ‘everyman’ five minutes—or even 15 seconds—with wikipedia would have avoided this gaffe. In a similar way, I wasn't terribly charitable of effete French character, nor the love triangle, or rather Riordan's behavior in same, that should've given this book some emotional heart to balance all the political wrangling during the negotiations with the various aliens.

Rachel Swirskey was asking for some conservative authors to read, and I think this guy qualifies—we get a bit about Leonides defending Thermopylae (though I gather modern scholars don't feel it was the saving of Greek democracy that this author suggests); not to mention all the other classical references, especially those relating to the Odyssey—besides the main character, who is presumably modelled on Odysseus, we have Telemachus, Circe, Calypso (but not, oddly enough, Penelope, even though there is in fact a character perfectly suited to play the role—to be charitable, the author may've been afraid to give away a long running mystery by naming her explicitly, but it reduces her agency considerably.)

But why, if female operatives had to have female codes names, was the alien named Circe male? Again, perhaps if I'd read more carefully, I might've found out, but since he was a flat, one dimensional villain, I didn't bother. In fact, aside from Ms. Rakir, above, I don't recall any female villains in this book. (Nor black people of any stripe. Personally, I like to imagine Mr British Accent Downing as black, but as he's got a widow's peak, this seems like a liberty on my part. Another nit that bugged me: the main character is 6’2". Um, really? When the main political units of Earth have become these 5 sectors?

Granted, we were supposed to switch to the metric system 40–50 years ago, but I'd assume economic conditions would have finally effected the transition by 2118! The protag's author's whining about the logrithmic scale of the metric system not withstanding, if he'd actually discussed its advantages with the physicist who helped with the ‘Wasserman Drive’, he'd quickly been disabused of its ‘human inefficiences’. I only took a couple of years of chemistry in college, but learned very quickly to be grateful that it's base 10, not 3 teaspoons to the Tablespoon, 4 T to the 1/4 C, 2 C to the pint, 2 pints to the quart, 4 quarts to the get the idea.)

There is a goodly amount of running around, escaping bad guys assassins of various stripes (with some weapon wankery of the type that fans of Tom Clancy or David Weber may enjoy) before we finally get to the end with the alien negotiation. I'm happy to have interesting tech in my space opera, but it needs to do something more exciting than just give the protagonist room to kill or evade his enemies. (Riordan may be noble and upstanding, but has no problem slaughtering those whom he considers villainous.) Again, citing Bujold, the uterine replicators have a significant impact on the way the Vorkosiverse's societies work—not just Athos, where they're essential to their survival, but they also underpin the series’ main character's literal and psychological development, not to mention the plots of Falling Free and Diplomatic Immunity —the latter, in fact, deeply intertwines with the villain's motivations.

But instead of that exploration of technology and its impacts on human/alien culture, we get...the other just-getting-to-be-spacefaring ‘exosapients’ as virulently sexist, and prejudiced against anyone not warriors. I couldn't help wondering how they created a sophisticated starfaring society with these handicaps. And no, I was not impressed by Riordan et al's efforts to get them to treat the non-warrior/non-male contingent of their party with respect by pointing out that said members could be considered honorary male warriors.

(There are three major female characters, and all are gorgeous chill girls, and all of them respond sexually to the protagonist. Bleh.) There's nothing wrong with strong sexy smart women, but that's not the only flavor female persons come in. What we boring liberals/SJWs/feminists want is a variety of characters, with their own agendas, as opposed to a supporting cast that is trying—and often failing—to make the ‘Odysseus’ character look good.

Again and again, the author's biases reduce opportunities to make this retelling (I presume) of Odysseus a fun, compelling story. And that's a pity, because if I wanna read 2D heroes and sexist stories, I can just read the original 50s stuff, which at least had the excuse of its time. This just seems to be a modern repackaging, with a few f-bombs and some sex thrown in, which, frankly, is not enough to make it the fresh update I was hoping for.

Speaking of fresh updates, here's a redo of a giftwrap decoration.

2015-03-21T00:00:00-05:00 Analysis of Jupiter Ascending 21mar2015

I had an excuse to go see a film, and I was gonna see the current live-acted Disney fairy-tale reworking, but my bestie told me that Jupiter Ascending was still playing, and I should go see that instead. I'd already seen the Mary Sue and similar feminist/geek/sf&f sites’ recces, which can basically be summed up as ‘gloriously awful’ and ‘as if someone took your girly 14 year old fanfic and threw a hundred million dollars at it’. That reviewer wryly wondered if this was how the 18–24 year male set felt all the time at the movies.

So I had very low expectations. The costumes were reputed to be good, at least. —However, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Granted I was pleased with this film from the very outset, when they decorated the opening logos with lovely gold curlicues. This, I figured, was something I was gonna enjoy. (Major spoilers: what follows is analysis, not critique.)

And I did.

I particularly didn't understand all the complaints about the plot, which I actually found perfectly sensible, and very easy to follow, once stripped of its assorted decorations, because the story followed to near perfection the structure of a classic fairy tale, in which the protagonist (usually the youngest of three brothers, but in this case, the daughter of a pair of sisters) is identified as one chosen to go on an adventure. She rounds up her helpers (one of whom is the love interest, the other, perhaps, falling more into the wise elder trope) and off she goes on her three trials of increasing difficulty, as represented by three siblings.

So, starting at the beginning, we get an explanation of our heroine's origins and name (Jupiter), which a) tell us she's likely to have an interest in outer space (her slain father is an astronomer) b) that she's more or less culturally orphaned and c) (a little foreshadowing, for those of you paying attention to the film's larger themes) that she's an illegal immigrant. Now, the family dynamics of her adult life could use a little explaining—why are her mother and her aunt deferring to this younger, assholish family patriarch if they made it to the US on their lonesome?

Nevertheless, as is often the case in fairy tales, the sisters and the daughter are low on the family totem pole, and ripe for adventure, which moves us to the next phase, identifying Jupiter: which happens when competing factions of bounty hunters have it out at the clinic to which Jupiter has been convinced by her crappy cousin to donate eggs. Sound far-fetched? Ok, but now there's a handy genetic sample to zero in on, and more foreshadowing because it turns out that Jupiter is a one-in-a-billion (or more) accidental genetic clone of a powerful woman who has left her estate in trust for such an heir, presumably because towards the end of her life she's discovered her three living children are awful. Your ordinary movie isn't gonna have its protag ID'ed in such a female-oriented way, and yes I noticed.

The successful bounty-hunter, a wolf-human hybrid (oh, boy, furries!) falls in love, and transfers his loyalties from his employer (the middle sib) to Jupiter; and then helps her to go round up some more stalwart supporters, to wit, his army buddy and a cop/social worker starship captain (social services for the win!) Along the way, Jupiter, who's none too thrilled with Caine the wolf-man's theft of ordinary person's car, stops up a wound with a mentrual pad. Besides being a real thing used, for example, by real US soldiers, it's a(nother) nice feminist touch, to go along with her horror of the comic book war going on in Chicago (cf to the latest Superman, whom someone tore to shreds over this very callousness.)

It's at this point we learn she's in effect an empress, because of the army bud's bees. Everyone's shaking their heads at the bees, but this is one aspect of the film I think I could explain: This is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, hmmm? (The opening shot of the garden flowers particularly brings to mind scenes of the Beast's garden...) Well, anyone familiar with fairy tales in general and Beauty & the Beast in particular (one of most beloved, nowadays) cannot fail to [be] familiar with the work of Robin McKinley, whose only real competition, in my experience at least, is Catherine Valente. And for years, no-one could touch her. —Besides two wonderful adaptations of the Beauty/Beast tale, McKinley's latest (completed) ‘fairy’ story is Chalice; and the main character is a magical beekeeper.

Just as Belle's love of reading (and the Beast's enormous library)—not to mention the huge draft horse—in the disney version are echoes of McKinley's first interpretation, I think the bees were, in some fashion, quite possibly inspired by Chalice, in which a petty fiefdom's true ruler is identified (and saved) by a huge swarm of bees. They play a far more attenuated role in this film, merely identifying Jupiter; just as they did the Chalice in that book. (They are the most overt aspect of the honeycomb/worker/hive symbolism that recurs throughout the film: I don't mean to say the Wachowskis swiped the bees wholesale; more like they took the trope and adapted it to their own purposes.)

Our next scene completes the ID process that started with Caine, progressed with Caine's buddy and the bees, which is Jupiter's wending her way through the documentation process, which finishes up with Ollivander handing her a wand her getting her family tattoo, in a suitably steampunk type setting. Now that Jupiter has her bona fides, it's time for the main event, her tripartite quest to cope with the children of her clone-mother, her competing heirs.

We start with the youngest? sister/daughter Kalique, who lives in a gorgeous castle, and who explains a bit of the super-rich lifestyle to which Jupiter is now entitled, the most enticing aspect of which is an elixir which Kalique demonstrates by bathing: a Fountain of Youth. —This trope, too, is part of sfnal fairy tales (such as Joan Vinge's superb, hugo-award winning Snow Queen.) It's also a recurring theme in the Wachowskis’ work, the theft of ordinary people's resources by the powerful. In this case, they don't even get pleasant fantasy in return.

Kalique is selfish and thoughtless, but not as heedlessly hedonistic and gluttonously cruel as the next sib, Titus, whose tasteless gold-colored statuary, featuring Peseus and Gorgon's head should have been a clue, if the null-gee orgy he's having when the scene opens wasn't enough. Beautiful and far more vain than his sister, this brother reveals to Jupiter that the elixir is not just horrendously expensive, but that every dose represents a hundred human lives harvested for it; and that Earth has been seeded with the intention of being so harvested when it reaches its carrying capacity in another 100 years or so. As the wizard pointed out, the glowing honeycomb hexagonal units of elixir in the background during this discussion are no accident: the wealthy have harvested the labor and lives of the common workers. Although Caine once again rescues Jupiter, it is through her own efforts at negotiation that she ultimately restores his—and by extension, his friend Stinger's—wings and place and society—from Titus, his original employer.

Titus attempts to deceive Jupiter in marrying him, (and the visuals for this are LotR elven-gorgeous) but the most formidable and ruthless of her foes—Balem, whom we've already seen dismembering alive his failed general (who is a dragon! —alas, the film doesn't have any unicorns....) simply straight up threatens to slaughter her family and her planet. There have been a few complaints that Caine keeps rescuing Jupiter, rather having her extract herself from her various situations, but given that she's almost entirely ignorant of the society, it's not altogether surprising that she must rely upon various allies to survive. And Caine himself keeps getting rescued by the social-worker cop-starship captain, so there. And, it should be noted that Jupiter does brain the most heinous villain with her own very two hands, though he's finished off in the usual Disneyesque falling-to-his-death amid the collapse of his appalling empire.

Offered the chance to become a 1% empress, Jupiter ultimately rejects this poisoned lifestyle, to return to the planet of her birth, to live with her sometimes annoying family, who turn out to be not quite as awful as originally depicted (one gets the sense that Jupiter herself, though sympathetic, is nonetheless not a totally reliable narrator) and to date a wolf-man whose removable (!) angel wings makes for very fun anti-grav boot sky-skating.

I'm not saying the film doesn't have problems. I personally found the some of the violence too much, and the felt there was too much time given to battle scenes, surviving the collapsing factory and the like. Although the black starship captain/backup (and her wookie elephant pilot) along with the PoC bounty hunters provided a little variety, too many of the main characters were white. It was Sarah Monette, I believe, who was railing against albino villains, and alas, this film provides another for her collection in the form of one of Balem's lieutenants. The whipsawing shifts from steampunk to spaceship, to LotR elvish fantasy, like Jupiter's exchange from her first, super-foofy dress to the far more functional (and attractive) black bodysuit, didn't bother me, but I expect they were at least part of what some people didn't like about the film.

Underneath the Victorian gew-gaws (the spacesuits, with their hexagonal gold and black detailing were particularly handsome) and the sometimes surrealistic settings—the bee-house of Stinger, or the Ollivander character and his office (because, let's face it, no-one as potentially rich and powerful as Jupiter was gonna have to go through all that wretched bureaucracy in real life, but do recall, this is a fairy tale)—there was certainly structure, and, in my opinion an absolutely scathing indictment of the 1% (not to mention USian immigration policy).

Stinger Apini summed up the film's theme the best, when talking about the bees: the film's real heroes, the commoners, the everywoman that Jupiter, in rejecting the tremendous wealth, proved herself to be. This choice is her real test, and the core of the film—not her failure to blast her way out of the various fighting set-pieces.

Yet the film has gotten absolutely dreadful reviews.

Just for kicks, I decided to compare this film to another version of Beauty and the Beast, Beastly. Knowing my love of this story, my bestie took me to see it when it came out (right around this time 4 years ago, as I recall....) I suspected it wasn't the greatest, but didn't actually read any reviews till after seeing it. The films rate out at Rotten tomatoes with roughly the same numbers: 26/46 for Jupiter and 21/48 for Beastly, for critics and general audience respectively. And Beastly, to be frank, was awful. The only thing I remember liking about it was the garden with the doors and roses the beast character built on the roof. It wasn't true to the theme of the story, the characters were not particularly appealing (or believable). While I agree that Jupiter Ascending didn't have The Fifth Element's Ruby Rhod or the blue alien Diva, what it did have was women actresses listed in the top six slots on the Tomato review, not to mention passing the Bechdel test and assorted other feminist overtones, a few of which I mentioned above. (Yes, Jupiter had to be rescued by Caine; but Leeloo had to be rescued by Bruce Willis’ character; both films were similarly over-the-top, but I liked the theme of this one better.)

The other film I saw this compared to was of course The Matrix. Both films explore the idea of the common person being parasitized by powerful, uncaring interests—computers/robots in one, wealthy oligarchs in the other, with a love interest (Trinity, Caine) who never expected to achieve it and a chosen-by-more-or-less accident hero forced to rise to the occasion. While The Matrix had a wonderful setup and then-new-to-film-making visual effects, I still hated that, in the end, Neo solved his problems with guns—lots of very big guns.

Jupiter, with arguably more courage, decided to sacrifice herself, and even the family for whom ‘she would do anything’ —except condemn the entire population of the earth to slaughter. —I can't help wondering if the things that made the Mary Sue and other geeky girl reviewers squee with pleasure because the movie seemed more geared to our ids (furries! dragons! clothes&castles-to-die-for...with, ta-da candles! angels! women protags! lack of male gaze on same, for-the-most-part! —heck, likeable honorable protags!) than those of the typical big-buks movies directed to the traditional 18-24 male segment—is a big part of the reason reviewers panned it so hard. It will be interesting to see if, with time, its star, like Jupiter, is found to be ascending.

And speaking of the astronomical signs, it's the first day of spring. Have a birdie. (Update, 29mar15: minor grammatical edits)

2015-03-17T00:00:00-05:00 survey of the books for celtic interlace... 17mar2015

I love St Patrick's, and again, I had planned to post some celtic interlace on the day just took a few days for reality to catch up with my intentions:)

For a long time there just didn't seem to be many good modern examples (a quick browse with google images suggests the situation has substantially improved in the last 20 odd years); it was difficult to learn. —For me, anyway.

I started, of course, with the classic by George Bain, which is still the most comprehensive book on making this stuff that I own. —Perhaps a decade later I got Aiden Meehan's 2nd book as a St Patty's Day gift, and it was copying the triangular motifs that make up the appendix that proved to by my breakthrough. —It has now been repackaged with two of his other books for a very reasonable price, and I'm guessing is probably the best book for a beginner to start with. (I've ordered 3 of the original series from the library & will provide an update when I have more than amazon's brief ‘look inside’ feature to go on.)

Between the two publications, George Bain's son, Iain, also wrote a book, specifically on knotwork. It goes into excellent detail for those who really want to get their proportions, shape of curves, etc., authentic. As it is very mathematically derived, it would be particularly good for those who want to use a vector program to draw art. (Which is what I was planning to do for years, except, I still haven't learned enough about computer graphics to achieve this goal. Someday, perhaps, I will be able to rough out art faster on the computer than I can on paper—I can certainly write faster on a computer, and I recall the novel during which I made the switch—but I'm nowhere near that yet.)

Fortunately, as you see it's quite possible to practice celtic knotwork on paper.

2015-03-15T00:00:00-05:00 A confession: while I certainly *thought* about making this post on pi day, I didn't manage it till later. But it's π day of the century! (That is, at 3-14-15|9:26:53, you get pi to 9 decimal places.) ---I kinda like these =non-commercial= low-key `holidays', which is why I'm making this post,...

A confession: while I certainly thought about making this post on pi day, I didn't manage it till later. But it's π day of the century! (That is, at 3-14-15|9:26:53, you get pi to 9 decimal places.) —I kinda like these non-commercial low-key ‘holidays’, which is why I'm making this post, even if it's a week late.

Another confession: I don't make pie. I like it, (I like anything that involves copious amounts of flour and butter) but it's so fattening that I make it seldom, which means I never really mastered crust.

But without going all out (i.e. cake) I do have some slightly fancier muffins to celebrate.

2015-02-27T00:00:00-05:00 More musing on the racism of the Wide Green World. 27feb2015

So last night I went to a presentation of our local history from, say C.E. 1000 to the present, with a focus from the mid 1600s to the mid 1800s. A lot of this stuff might only be of interest to locals, but I learned a couple of things of more general interest. One is that ‘sippy’ or ‘seppy’ means river (as in, Mississippy) in, if my notes can be trusted, (one of) the Huron language. (A note: I do know that tribe name is to be preferred, but when referring to assorted groups, for this post, I will defer to Mr Siegfried's preferred usage, ‘Indian’, which he sees as value-neutral.)

Two, they traded all over the continent—shells from the Gulf of Mexico made it all the way back to the St Lawrence basin, via the network of rivers the people used to travel via canoe. Detroit's founding—in its particular place and time—was very much driven by Indian politics. Our local highway follows an old Indian trail that goes all the way to Chicago.

And three, one of the disputes between the British Crown and the revolutionaries was evidently there was a line, reserving lands to the west of it for the Indian peoples, which the colonists wished to cross (not least because from their point of view the land was being “wasted”). This aspect of the dispute, is, shall we say not so emphasized as the tax thing. (Frex, I can't find the name of it in Wikipedia or other online sources, but finding the list of taxes with which the colonies took issue was easy.)

That last really resonated with me, because I recognized something strikingly similar in Bujold's Wide Green World books, the dispute between the Lakewalkers and Farmers, of ‘the old cleared line’. These books, which are set in an alternate 18–19ca version of the same general area of the Midwest as where I live (and the historian was discussing) revolve around the efforts of a slightly magical group of people, the Lakewalkers, to rid the world of randomly appearing devouring monsters called malices, which feed upon life energy in general and people, especially children and pregnant women, in particular. The ‘old cleared line’ is the region the Lakewalkers deem it safe for farmers to settle; but of course, the farmers can't resist the virgin land to the north.

This angers the Lakewalkers, because if a malice attacks a farmer town, it grows and destroys everyone lakewalker and farmer alike.

In a sense, the malices give the Lakewalkers an advantage the natives they're plainly based upon that the real Indians did not have: an enemy the farmers (colonialists) can not defeat. It was always somewhat obvious that the Lakewalkers, who besides living in a semi-nomadic, longhouse-dwelling, gift culture (and who braid their hair into the bargain) had a lot in common with the so-called ‘Late Woodlands’ the historian discussed. (His problem was that he was trying to cram a semester long course into a 2-1/2 hour talk. Whew.)

But that discussion of that line really drew into sharp, ineradicable focus the origins of this fantasy culture. After I came home I was too tired to research hotels in Miami, and ended up on Yo, is this racist? —for hours. There are only white people in the ‘Wide Green World’, and it pains me deeply. Especially when it could have so easily been otherwise.


That is on top of the various atrocities perpetuated on our region's first peoples, and the ongoing injustices. It brings to mind a boingboing interview with M.T. Anderson, the author of Feed:

People ask me whether I think we’ll ever live in a “dystopian world.”

We already do. It’s just that we happen to live in the shining Capital, so we export the suffering elsewhere.

Yeah, Metropolis. And I'm part of it, and not iconclastic enough to do an Emma Goldman—about the only person I can think of offhand who was really, truly ahead of her time, social-justice wise. Well, I guess one can console oneself with warm muffins.

2015-02-15T00:00:00-05:00 Happy belated Valentine's Day! Yeah, I know a lot of people don't like Valentine's Day; and that's just fine. Also that this is dreadfully late, because I didn't start writing the post till the 15th, and it took me till the 18th to get it done (& will take till the 19th to get pushed over. But I'...

Happy belated Valentine's Day!

Yeah, I know a lot of people don't like Valentine's Day; and that's just fine. Also that this is dreadfully late, because I didn't start writing the post till the 15th, and it took me till the 18th to get it done (& will take till the 19th to get pushed over. But I've had this thing in the queue, nagging me for the last year & I'm determined to post this ancient object this year.

And I have a nice non-romantic valentine: a book recce!

My fiction reading has dropped off hugely in the past several years, because there just didn't seem to be all that many really good stories to my taste I'm too lazy/busy to find stuff I like, probably because if one has literary pretensions (even at my sub-basement level) then one is assumed to read well-written books with realistic and often not-very-nice people.

Well, I've to look on the inside of my own head to get a heaping plateful of that. Blerghhhhh. I'd rather read about kind, generous souls who do the right thing, or, at least, repent of doing the wrong thing and then get better. And as it happens, I stumbled across just such a book.

Well, actually, I saw it on a bunch of ‘best of’ lists for 2014, much the same way Ann Leckey's Ancillary Sword dominated 2013. —Btw, the second book in the series, Ancillary Justice, is just as good:) But if you're looking for fantasy, rather than sf, then allow me to reccommend Katherine Addison's (Sarah Monette) Goblin Emperor. The author, after being dropped (for dropping sales) for her 4 books Labyrinth series featuring the half brothers Mildmay the Fox, a thief, and Felix Harrowgate, a wizard, moved to a new one with this standalone, which is considerably lighter in tone, despite the fact it starts out with a neglected and abused orphan who is precipitously shot to the throne of his kingdom.

Maia, the goblin son of the emperor's despised fourth wife, has nevertheless absorbed her generosity of spirit and kindness; and despite the harsh conditions he's lived under since his mother's death at eight, has a steady head on his shoulders; which he's going to need if he's to keep it there, after the turmoil the kingdom has been thrown into after the death of the Emperor and his three heirs.

One recommendation: take a moment to read the bit explaining the various titles (which explain relationships) at the back of the book. It will also help to keep track of the many minor characters, as their familial relationships helps to slot them into the story. —Like the Leckie, the author plays with pronouns to give her world a more immersive feel: in this case, formal versus informal is indicated by whether the characters use singular or plural to refer to themselves. It gives the book a nice old-fashioned feel, which, as a big fan of Jane Austen, I appreciated. (Another reviewer notes that if you're the type of reader who wants action! battles! and fast-pacing! this book is not for you. However, I found the political manoeuvering plenty engaging. —Of course, one of my favorite fantasy novels, The Curse of Chalion is nothing but. In fact, I'd say if you liked that one, you probably will enjoy this, for much the same reason: a likeable protagonist, given to self-doubts, bright but rather inexperienced with the more byzantine aspects of court, attempting to do the right thing. (The other book it kind of reminds me of is Georgette Heyer's Civil Contract, though this is not at all a romance in the modern sense, though the term could certainly apply in the traditional way—after all, the recce is for valentine's day haters, though those who like it could certainly also enjoy the book;)

Having been so impressed with this book, I immediately ordered the 4 books of her earlier series from the library. These are also well-written, but the protagonists, Felix in particular, are deeply damaged by their upbringings and they are not very pleasant people. I understood why they weren't, but their environment was so ‘grimdark’ that very few people seemed to be able to be genuinely kind or caring. I liked the labyrinth imagery that is particularly important to the 2nd book (the first one was, to my eye, mostly setup, with —spoilers! one of the characters effectively insane for nearly the whole book).

I'm planning on giving the latter two a chance, but I liked much better the short stories, many of which are available on the web. The author (under her own name, Sarah Monette) has a number of them; most are horror, her favourite genre. Some feature a pair of paranormal detectives, which are great fun. Her short story collection The Bone Key features Kyle Murchison Booth, an introverted, awkward museum curator who is the most frequently recurring character. His stories in particular are typically a brooding, atmospheric horror very like H.P. Lovecraft, but without so much of the racism and misogyny. Monette is also fascinated by true crime, particularly historical true crime from the 1800s, and has many reviews of the genre (which I've always avoided, as it seems rather...sensationalistic) on her lj.

Alas, the heart I'm featuring is neither realistic, nor dripping, nor frightening...but if you're more in the mood for awwww than ewwww, well, there you go.

2015-02-01T00:00:00-05:00 Happy February, everyone! Here in the midwest we're having our first major snowstorm of the season, and I'm rather enjoying the 10 plus inches we're expected to receive. Of course, I don't have to drive anywhere in it, so there's that. What I *ought* to be doing is working up samples for actua...

Happy February, everyone! Here in the midwest we're having our first major snowstorm of the season, and I'm rather enjoying the 10 plus inches we're expected to receive. Of course, I don't have to drive anywhere in it, so there's that.

What I ought to be doing is working up samples for actual commissions (hi customers!) or at the very least, making art of some kind—guild challenges, painting with acrylics, etc—but since I'm not, I figured I could at least come up with a blog post. Not to mention some etsy listings! So here's a couple of sweet little heart-themed wall hangings. I'm featuring them now because Valentine's is coming up, but if you're not into rotating your house furnishings, they could certainly hang around (heh) year around. Both pieces are small, about 8x10.5 inches, with a warm tan and rich pink color scheme, for the very reasonable price of $25 each.

For those of you for whom this blog is all beads all the time, well, I have a post featuring some heart-shaped beads as well:)

2015-01-31T00:00:00-05:00 Our local libraries annually pick books for the patrons to read, and then in February bring in the author (or somebody related) to talk about the book; along with reading groups in the like. This year's choice is a novel, which is kind of unusual, but it appealed to me because two of the protagoni...

Our local libraries annually pick books for the patrons to read, and then in February bring in the author (or somebody related) to talk about the book; along with reading groups in the like. This year's choice is a novel, which is kind of unusual, but it appealed to me because two of the protagonists were Japanese; plus, I like the idea of participating in a community reading program.

Most of the reviews focus on the 16 year old narrator, a Japanese girl who lived in the US long enough to feel very alienated when her folks move back to Japan after the dot-com crash; or her marvellous and delightful 104 year old great grandmother, Juku, a buddhist nun in Ruth Ozeki's For the Time Being. Compelling as their voices are I actually ended identifying with Ruth, who is more of a framing character, and her husband (who are indeed the author and her husband.)

The whole book plays with these blurring boundaries, as you are pretty much informed on the first page, when the narrator, via her diary (cleverly disguised as an old copy of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, which should give you a clue) explains this buddhist concept of a ‘time being’. She herself is such, via the diary she's put in a hello kitty lunchbox; whales are; her great grandmother the reader (and the author who finds this diary) are. The stories—the girl's, and the author's—move in tandem.

The book is chock full of delightful constructions (like the diary); stuff about Buddhism (the author is Buddhist), the great gyres (SN just this month had an article about these giant oceans of trash) the isolated island to which the author has retreated with her ill spouse, who recovers his health amongst nature, even as she comes to feel more isolated, cut off from New York City, and its creative vitality.

The protag, meanwhile, details the joys of being bullied and shunned in Japanese high school, losing her US friends, watching her formerly successful dad try (and fail) to get a job, try (and fail) to commit suicide via train, while referencing the akihibara and harajuku districts of Tokyo (which we visited last summer) not to mention f2tY's high school, in which it was very clear her classmates were thrilled to see their American classmate again. Also, we rode trains all over the country, and yes, one was delayed (probably) because of ‘human intervention’ —the euphemism for suicide or attempted suicide by jumping off the platform. So these synchronicities or not-quite-shared-experiences were kind of disorienting in that sense, because I knew just enough for this to intersect with my reality.

But for all that, it was the middle-aged protagonist with whom I most identified, the author|character who feels herself something of a failure, whose not written any novels for over a decade, and whose memoir of that time, taking care of her dying mother, is a mess. She's spinning her wheels, in effect. Meanwhile, as I was reading this, our comics librarian, who is awesome, had a new book by Inio Asano, Solanin. I was deeply impressed by Nijigahara Holograph (which btw is also about bullying in Japanese schools and possibly the most intricately plotted thing I've ever read) so I was happy to read this straightforward earlier work, about a bunch of rather aimless, artsy 20 somethings, particularly Meiko Inoue, who takes up the guitar to master the eponymous song of the title, as well.

Oddly enough, both the middle-aged Ruth, and 24 year old Meiko, come to much the same conclusion by the end of their books, if not at their stories: that life may not be perfect, but that it is, for the time being, good enough. That, for all its petty frustrations, they—we—I—have it pretty good. I've always understood that some books, some stories, resonate with particular readers; but the cultural milieu—modern Japan—meant that the stories, in a sense, interacted with each other: that whole ‘genre is a series of conversations’ thing Bujold likes to talk about. More: this is what culture is (and why densely packed people, and their X^2 interactions, are so important to it:)

And, oddly enough today's item goes with that pretty well: this gift is nothing special, but it was the best I was able to find.

2015-01-26T00:00:00-05:00 Frederick Wiseman's _National Gallery_ documentary. 26jan2015

Went and saw Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery (at a theatre inside an art museum, how appropriate) but at three hours, this thing is way too long. I was able to sit through it, but my companion had to get up and physically stretch her legs; the patron in front of us left, perhaps half or two-thirds of the way through. Part of the problem is that it's really two films: one, the one I (as an artist) was interested in watching about the restoration, installation and other behind-the-scenes technical aspects of running the museum.

The other strand documented people's —curators, docents, assorted museum-goers, including lovers, students, the nearly blind and a lot of middle to elderly aged men—reactions to, and interactions with, the art. Acting as sort of a transition between these two components were the discussions and planning by upper echelon museum staff, with regard to it politics, planning, and finances.

The film starts out with an earnest mid-level board member attempting to convince the director that the museum needs to be more accessible, more relatable to the average citizan, who, she says, doesn't really get why the museum or its contents are so special. The director sits politely, unconvinced, as she goes on and on and on and on. I sympathized with her because an awful lot of people do in fact, regard art museums as something ‘for rich people.’ I also wasn't terribly surprised to note that (so far as I could tell) the top two positions were filled by men; most of the mid-level employees (and all the docents except one) were women. All of the laborers were, of course, men. There were three people of color who could be said to be working; two were menials, the other (a pianist) obviously hired part-time.

At the same time, no, I don't really think art museums need to have banners advertising this or that charity, or corporation (or corp sponsoring a charity, though coming up with cute, potentially viral vids that encourage people to check out their local museum sounds great). Director Penny clearly sees as his job to conserve the museum and its traditions, and preserve the art within. Which I suppose brings me to the heart of the underlying problem: the art shown in this film is a tiny, but famous and recognizable, portion of the collections: paintings, mostly oil paintings, dating from (I wanna say) roughly 1400–1900, with an emphasis on French, Italian and British ‘big names’.

Museums, so I was informed in another quite interesting documentary, are having a difficult time competing with modern collectors with lots of money to spend, and a desire to validate their taste (and wealth) with high-status art—that is, the same big names Wiseman focuses his camera on. This annoys for two reasons: one, of course, is that it's pretty hard for the average person to see art in private collections. But the other is the reinforcing of what is “proper” art: white, western, European. One docent mentions to a group of black youths that it ‘needs to be acknowledged’ that museum was founded with money extracted from the backs of slaves. That's all very well, but the black kids already likely have a sense of that, if not the exact history; it's all the well-to-do whites that really need to be reminded of this.

To be sure, it's encouraging that some major institutions are combatting this; but the fact of the matter is, all those paintings were, for the most part, commercial art made for patrons who could pay for it; just as today, the bulk of art is commercial, one way or another (little as the so-called ‘fine art’ world cares to admit this.) One of the things I love about the internet is that fans of odd little niches can find each other (and also that what I suspect is Impression-equivalent: graffiti and other street art, or comics, are starting to get some recognition.)

The National Gallery deserves plenty of kudos for trying to make art accessible to wider audiences (such as the visually impaired) as well as the making of art (we're shown a number of non-professionals learning to draw from the nude model, which is generally not something encouraged for non-artists). There's no question that looking at really top flight stuff in museums has sharpened my critical faculties. At the same time, there's an awful lot of art made by artists who can't support themselves; and if our culture placed more value on art-making, particularly more kinds of art-making, from the get-go, then I think the need to educate people on the importance of museums would naturally disappear.

The theatre always presents us, the audience, with a review of the film, and I enjoy comparing my reactions to that of the professional reviewer. In this case, we both clearly found the parts of the documentary about restoration (and to a lesser extent interpretation in a historical context) of the paintings to be most riveting. Rembrandt, for example, decided he didn't like/couldn't sell a large canvas, so he rotated it 90 degrees, and started painting anew, without even bothering to put another ground, (probably) incorporating material from the prior piece into the new one. That's the sort of thing I'd do, and that fact, derived from careful scientific analysis, is of far greater interest to me than what a painting means, nor even the silent communion with paintings the film-maker so lovingly depicts, over and over and over.

At first, I resented that most of these admirers seemed to be middle-aged or older white men; women, youths, PoC being more likely to be shown in line, or in groups, or the like; but I finally concluded that these men were standing in for, and representing the creator himself. —Which, to be honest, was the part that really needed to be cut. Wiseman, consciously or not, attempted to direct our sympathies away from the mid-level employee and her argument about accessibility to the average person by opening the documentary with a too-long cut to open the film. But a good portion of his film, to my mind, illustrated the strength of her arguments: art needs to be accessible to everyone, not just rich white guys. And that means, we need to know museums show more than just da Vinci, Rembrandt and Vermeer.

(So, is giftwrapping ‘art’? Most people would say no, or, hell no. Internally, I'm using the same software to create it as stuff that does get labelled art. So, who knows? But that's why I find these distinctions rather baffling.)