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the various and sundry creations of sylvus tarn


cropReason #69242 I detest facebook: unless willing to disconnect from the internet entirely (which, obviously, I'm not willing to do) they can track you. Google, to be honest, isn't a whole lot better. On a slightly less depressing note, the man who cracked the lottery (NYT) is in my opinion a cautionary tale for all those geeky computer hackers who just can't help profiting from their poking around in code.

That caveat is important: I make a sharp distinction between some bozo who seems mildly disappointed he can't hook up with the mob to help him properly exploit his awesome hack and someone like Aaron Swartz, who was—depending on your interpretation, breaking the law or skirting the edges—to address an injustice coming out of the same problem as the privacy issue above—technology outrunning law and custom.

Artists, of course, copy all the time; and in fact I've tried to copy the (style of) the beads featured today, I used a quite simple goal to achieve my goal, so no subterfuges were necessary!


cropToday's bead is one of the trades I mentioned yesterday. And, oh hey, I never posted this review. From, um, almost 2 years ago. Time to rectify that situation!

(9jun16): The local branch of our library has these group read programs, which it promotes along with other new releases in a front froom; Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is evidently statewide, perhaps because of the setting.(1) Given the reviews, award, promotion—and, oh yeah, the genre—I figured, why not?

True to its billing, this is a beautifully constructed book, set both in a recognizable present and a post-apocalyptic future, when the superbug ‘Georgia flu’ and its aftermath have wiped out well over 99% of the human population. The story starts with Arthur Leander, a film star desiring, after enduring the destructive hollywood lifestyle for many years, to get back to the roots of his craft by performing Shakespeare, on stage. He serves as the nexus upon which the other characters—his friends, fellow actors, ex-wives, even the paparazzo who tries to resuscitate him during a heart attack—connect and are connected.

The book is very much an ensemble piece, like the ‘Traveling Symphony’ around whom much of the action centers, but if it has a protagonist, that would be Kirsten Raymonde, the child actor who briefly works with the famous star, and who makes her living doing what, even before civilization collapses, she loves best: acting. (The visual arts are represented by a labour-of-love comic, the eponymous Station Eleven.)(2)

Like the players of Shakespeare's time, the group moves, hamlet to tiny town, entertaining farming communities with music and theatre created during pre-Industrial times, kindling a living flicker of culture from before that has adapted handily to the present. Arthur's fame is such that it is possible for Kirstern to find remnants of a man whose kindness to her is one of the few things she remembers from her life before the collapse, and a good deal of the pleasure of reading this book is watching her and the other characters (re)discover their connections—good, bad, ephemeral, disastrous, ultimately hopeful—to Arthur, their past lives, each other.

It's beautifully done, well deserving of its accolades.

So much for the review. One aspect that immediately struck me was though the story is indubitably sf by any dictionary definition, its theme centers around loss, specifically of relationships, large and small. It is embodied in Arthur's loss—of his wives, of his oldest friend, whom he characterizes later in life as “dull”, even of the son with whom he vows to reconnect. This is replicated in the surviving characters’ loss as well—not just of their parents, siblings, spouses and lovers, but of everything they've known: refrigerators spilling cold and light, oranges and chocolate, handheld computers with which you could speak to your friends and loved ones half a world away. Light. Planes. Cities: all symbols of civilization, recurring motifs of this theme of connection.

The novel didn't really seem to deal much with the mechanics, so to speak, of the devastating disease that wipes out some 99% of the population. We're told that it has an incredibly short incubation period (3–4 hours versus the more typical 48) and that it's basically 100% fatal. In fact, most diseases, no matter how deadly, tend to have that 2 day window, probably a limitation of physical constraints (i.e. chemistry) on how fast they multiply. But even less believable was the mortality rate. The bubonic plague that swept Europe only killed off about 25% of the population (wikipedia says up to 60%) though some communities lost up to 75% of their numbers. The Pandemic of 1918, which more nearly provides the basis for this story, (again, according to wikipedia) infected 500 million people in places as remote as the Arctic and killed 10–20% of them—roughly 5% of the worldwide population.

Given this strain's ferociously short incubatory period, and its ferociously high infectious rate (basically 99%) and its appalling mortality rate (100%) I could not, therefore, help speculating that this was a manmade version. However, all of the characters accept that it's a natural calamity; and I simply couldn't believe that no-one speculated about this.

Even ebola (in its worst case scenario) only kills 90% of its victims. The plain fact of the matter is that we animals have been co-evolving with microorganisms for millions of years, and while I could accept a devastating disease exacerbated by proximity (human cities had negative population growth because of infection until the 1800s or so) it simply beggars belief that it would kill, essentially, all its victims. And if I—merely an artist interested in science—could figure that out, then certainly others could too.

Judging from the population density in the novel, possibly 1 out of 10,000 people have survived by year 15. Now granted, a goodly number who dodged the flu then died in the immediate aftermath, cut down by starvation, disease, anarchy—to which the author alludes but does not explicate, except to say that it was awful. Moreover, the infectious diseases we've mostly forgotten about (in first world countries, anyway) would have come roaring back. (One character ironically dies from tetanus, and I say ironically because he probably vaccinated, and as far as I could tell wouldn't’ve been due for his booster.)

But this sort of nit-picking hardly matters, for the pandemic was merely a device to answer the question: in what kind of a world would travelling players performing traditional (i.e. no or few props) Shakespeare be the height of culture?

Though the older characters certainly grieve—and very believably, too—for their lost world, they are able to find beauty in the new: the growth of the wilderness, the brilliance of stars no longer occluded by light pollution, the freedom from engine noise. For a post-apocalyptic novel, it's remarkably optimistic: in 20 years there are enough horses that a troupe of players can “afford” them, and a big enough surplus of food that all the towns to which they travel can afford to host the troupe, who evidently travel & manage to survive doing performances, full-time. (Though no money is ever seen to change hands; we encounter some advertisements for barter, in a newspaper that is evidently, like the players’ performance and their support, part of a gift economy—it seems unlikely that a person would pay money to place an ad for free kittens, even if their mother was ‘a good mouser’.)

For a world that has undergone cataclysmic horror, the fact that so relatively few communities have fallen prey to authoritarian and highly stratified social structures suggests that the author has a fundamentally more sanguine opinion of humanity than I do. Granted, people do often pull together during catastrophes (though the news often emphasizes the bad behavior) two decades is more than enough for that to wear off—at least not without a sea change in people's outlook. And granted, the relative lack of population pressure and old civilization to scavenge from would help.

Nevertheless, you would expect, for good or ill, major changes in people's understanding of the world. I just can't see the average person, bitter with loss, shrugging their shoulders and saying, well, it was all just crappy luck that so many people died. We're pattern-seeking creatures, and not fond of senseless coincidence. Even if they didn't blame the superflu on some shadowy conspiracy they could—and would—likely hold the former governments, airlines, health organizations— somebody —responsible for the horrific suffering. And I cannot believe some sizeable proportion wouldn't agitate for stricter controls, next time, to prevent such a calamity.

But for the most part, people retain a remarkably modern worldview: yes, there's are plenty of ‘prophets’—but they're considered a passing anomaly. People have already started ramping civilization back up—printing newspapers (how? there are almost no presses, let alone type, left, and likely not the technology to produce type) and museums. The Traveling Symphony travels armed, and sets sentries, but feels secure enough to explore new territory.

This is what I mean by the book not being ‘genre’ sf: it's not really partaking in the conversation about the larger ways culture would change. It could not help doing so, after losing so many people. (And sf is all about alien cultures.) Oh, sure, the younger kids shake their heads in wonder or exasperation at their elders’ fairy-tale stories, and some of the older folks wonder if it's worth trying to convey what the old world is like, when no-one now alive will ever experience it again.

In fact, there doesn't seem to be any hesitancy in recreating that past, if it were possible. This thematic yearning is, of course, very affirming for all of us now living that life (and is part of the reason, to be honest, that I think non-genre audiences found the book approachable.) SF, otoh, is traditionally forward looking—in this case, I'd expect to see more questioning of a lifestyle that ultimately led to such disaster.

To be fair, perhaps these struggling hamlets aren't ready for those larger questions yet—they've barely got one broadsheet and one scruffy orchestra/theatre troupe going. Larger debates of this sort are likely to become more common in the next few generations, should they start successfully recreating their forebears’ technology.

So...the point of all this? Not much, except that I like thinking about this stuff. It's certainly not to tear down an excellent book. But its focus, as I said in the review, is its characters: while the setting(s) are vividly drawn, they are, as in Shakespeare's plays, a backdrop to the character interaction.

And I have a treat, something by fellow beadmaker across the pond, Marlene Minhas. Enjoy!

(1)One of the major settings is a small, relatively new airport called Severn (which is fictional, but probably based on the Grand Rapids airport.)


cropNora Twomey's The Breadwinner is currently playing on netflix, which I hope gives this animated film the second chance it so richly deserves: it only made about 200 or 300K (that's right, about one-thirtieth of its 10 million dollar cost) box office. Set in Afghanistan, I initially hoped it would be in (an) Afghan language, but the animated characters speak an accented English, though some of the background voices are in ‘Afghan’ (probably Pashto).

Made by the same director as The Book of Kells, the story centres around the efforts of Parvina, a young girl in the time of the Taliban, to hold her family together—a daunting, and heartwrenching task in a land where an entitled, insecure teenager has the power to throw someone in jail or even shoot them merely for opening zir mouth.

As the film is made by an Irish/Canadian/UK consortium based on a book by a Canadian author, I wondered how Afghanis would feel about the film and the main character's design, which is pretty obviously based on the famous National Geographic cover; there's a lot discussion going on in the sf&f communities about how it's great and important for Westerners white people to depict non cis/het/white/abled folks, but what really needs to happen is for the non cis-het-white-abled to be authors of their stories themselves.

As it happens, (at least some) Afghans are praising the film, both for getting cultural details right and using voice actors of colour.

Given the film's extremely limited engagement, there aren't a ton of reviews, but ones I did skim tended to find the ‘story’ thread that Parvina, the protagonist, and other characters, intertwine with their own narrative throughout the film, a weaker aspect, that ‘diffused’ the message—sort of the way so many people didn't like the Finn and Rose arc In the Force Awakens. I argued that Finn and Rose's failure was crucial to the film's theme; that's even more true, I think, for this film, because, as much as its authentic details and sympathetic characters may appeal to Afghanis, I think its real message is for the rest of the world—most especially, that part of it that Nasrullah, the scholar who narrates the history, whose empires have made for thousands of years—very nearly since its beginning—a battleground of his beloved country.

This is chillingly depicted with an economy seldom found in modern film, which seems to demand all the blood, gore and suffering in excruciating detail—which I find so horrifying I can't actually bear to watch the story. With a PG rating, children Parvina's age can actually watch this film, which nevertheless has a stark realism to it. Parvina and her family may prevail, but their lives preclude a Disney fairy-tale ending.

Afghanistan has for me mostly meant ‘beautiful blue beads’ —lapis lazuli(1)—and, to a lesser extent, feeling sad that I live in one of those empires that turned their country to a battleground. This film—in its brief introduction, no less—reminded me how quickly a cultured, educated society can be ground under the horrors of ignorance, fear and authoritarianism—which is toxic for everyone, even the authoritarians.

But even more than that, the story Parvina and others tell not only is an important part of the resolution of their own, personal history, it showcases how important story-telling is. For everyone.

And my own, far smaller story starts with these (to my eyes, anyway) beautiful blue beads. Enjoy.


cropAnd we have, yet again, not the post I was originally planning. This one was easy, anyway. Plus I can finish up the links from yesterday.

First up, via slacktivist: Contrapoint's video comments (with makeup and costumes!) about Jordan Peterson. Jordan Peterson is, I guess? an atheist who's currently got some international bestseller with a title something like “12 rules for a philosophical life”, which should tell you right there that his thinking is simplistic.

According to the various folks I've read critiquing him, this fella's method is the baffle them with bafflegab, the vaguer the better. He's infamous for refusing to use a trans student's pronouns, and, as Contrapoint is both trans and evidently has philosophical training—or at the very least, the willingness and ability to read and listen to a lot of this guy's stuff—is well-equipped to explain why this guy's stuff is BS. I particularly appreciated the contrast between Contrapoint's carefully developed arguments and the ...yeah, I guess, surreal is a good way to put it—interruptions.

We currently have a cat in our household, but she doesn't much like being held or even stroked (though she likes scritches and loves chasing string) so I was happy to watch a cute little video about how to pick up and hold a cat (via bb) which led me to—as one commenter put it—spending 40 minutes watching someone shave a cat. With the big payoff of the huge mat finally being removed not even on-screen! (The kitty was incredibly patient, a real sweetie—so glad she got rescued;) Because, I guess, making art, even pasting memorabilia into a scrapbook, is too haaaaaard.

Um, spoiler: the fugly is in the presentation, not the actual product.


cropWhoopsie! I obviously completely lost track of this piece that was s'posed to show up yesterday last Thursday. (Obviously, still batting a thousand, here...)

So here's a mini-link dump—obviously like these musicians, Lake Street Drive, especially their first offering, which I listened to 4–5 times, before deciding that, really, I should listen to something else. Continuing with the lake theme, I'm on the local Wild Ones mailing list, and they sometimes feature stuff of wider import than just our locale, such as this MSU manual of bee pollinators of the Great Lakes —Obviously geared to the midwest (but, that's where I live...) if not our exact community, but this stuff can have surprisingly wide relevance—the wild fruits ID book I purchased in AK has still proved very helpful for camping trips closer to home. Since I love watching the various insects buzz around my garden—and in the summer, there are clouds of them—I think this book would be helpful.

But then I hesitated.

It's inexpensive, functionally made, and evidently well-designed. So why?

I'm reading this fascinating book called How Emotions are Made and it makes the not-terribly-surprising (and probably well known) claim that people with categories or names for things can think about them faster and more effectively. Suzette Haden Elgin made this point vividly years ago in one of her Native Tongue books in which a character names (with a ‘made-up’ word) for ‘the inside of the elbow’...and now you have two of them.(1) You will never think about this part of your body in the same way again—well, I read the book at least a decade ago, and more likely two, so... (In fact it would an extremely useful word for yogis, who usually talk about the ‘crease of the elbow’, but I digress.)

Having the visual difference between male and female robins pointed out to me forever differentiated them. Learning that red squirrels exist made visible an animal invisible to me for the first two score years of my life. I know, from observation that there are more than just honeybees, bumblebees and those dichro-green-thoraxed (sweat?) bees—but without labels and a frame work for differentiating them, I can't, really. —Well, without a lot of work: one of the claims of this book is that most of the information goes to our eyes from the brain—instead of the vice versa we assume. I have discovered this experimentally: I never get the structure of a flower or plant by photographing it the way I do when drawing it, the latter requiring far more careful observation, what I call “really looking” at it.

IOW, according to this book, when I make a careful drawing, I'm disconnecting that visual prediction default of my brain, to actually pay attention to what my eyes are actually seeing. This, evidently, is why two (or more) people can see different things at the same event: because if what they're seeing maps closely enough to what they expect to see, then they see what they expect to, because that's a lot faster and efficient for the brain to process (if we didn't do this, the world would a constant, overloading mess of undifferentiated sensory inputs—likely, btw, what autistics, whose filters are weaker, experience.)

Developing the framework—first step, vocabulary—for thinking about, well, anything, makes that thinking efficient enough one can actually move forward, into new territory. Must you have a specific word? Well, no: certain kinds of thinking use other frameworks (frex, I think in ‘beads’ when I string; my mother-in-law claimed to think in emotions. My own mother, on the other hand, is so verbally connected she didn't, at first, believe this was possible. Which kind of surprises me, because my dad got far enough in his mathematics studies that he probably experienced that kind of thinking—which, sadly, few people, myself included—can do because mathematics is so poorly taught.)

All of this to say, if I read this book about these bees and their flowers, I will never see my garden in the way I do now. I'm actually a little afraid to sharpen my perception, because I, er, like bokeh visually, and would it detract from ‘clouds’ of insects to decompose them to their individual species? But what a silly supposition! I did a bunch of bee photographs and sketches for an art project, and that has enriched my appreciation of both the bumble and honeybees I drew, even though the art ended up sucking. So why would I be afraid to learn more?

(Minor spoiler for the book above: the author opens one chapter with what she calls a ‘blobby’ image—which is what it was—I mean, I literally thought,

What is that?

I knew from the rest of the book, which had very clean, vector images, that this wasn't some sort of random, organic splotch (which, say, if it were in one of my journals, wouldn't be an out-of-place expectation) —so it didn't take me very long to resolve the picture to a side view of a honeybee. I could actually feel my perception resolving the image—this usually happens too fast and/or unconsciously so that was a gift. —Though of course, then there was this weird collection of emotions every time the author discussed how I needed the additional info in one of the indexes to change my perception of the image. No, says my proud self, I figured it out myself—helped by co-incidence and visual training (artists do actually take in more of their visual feeds than do ordinary folks, by virtue of training—I think I have a link somewhere to a study that shows artists’ eyes dart around a scene more, but I can't find it).

Ah. I have argued myself back from this fear: now I'm convinced I want to learn more about bees. Would that everyone could convince themselves that widening perceptions truly enrich their worlds...speaking of which, mebbe I posted this link to the perfect kingfisher picture before (via Alas ) cuz I've certainly seen it before, but I actually liked the ‘failures’ (to be sure, since they were included in the photo essay, so too, —obviously—did the author.

Sheesh. That was a bit much. Have a mediocre lamp pull for your pains.

(1)Actually, thinking about it more, I think it might have been the inside of the forearm—after all, we already have a term for the inside of the elbow, the ‘crook’ (though that implies the arm is bent, which is why yogis don't use it, since they generally only need to refer to the crease or eye of the elbow when arms are straight, as for down dog.)


cropHoping you had a pleasant May Day yesterday. This is one of those ‘minor’ holidays, like St Patrick's Day, that has a personal meaning for me. (Nevertheless celebrating that is not the reason I failed to post. Nor was the gorgeous spring weather. I just didn't do a whole lot, besides packing stuff up.)

I have been reading a lot of interesting books that moreover have formed a sort of internal genre (that might best be summed up as ‘Basic bodyhacking for sylvi...’) but again, that will have to wait till later.

I don't know whether I've mentioned how city spaces have been (not so) subtly shaped to lock out their poorest members, but here's a recent article on the topic; nobody wants to see people conked out on park benches or doorways, but the solution, of course, is not making those spaces unusable for them, but to actually spend the money to help them. Which, as they're the poorest and least powerful, tends not to happen. (So many of society's ills seem to boil down to just that: helping the least fortunate. Not precisely a new observation on my part!)

Getting back to today's topic, a rosary, I do feel that the RCC—especially the more, shall we say, rebellious wings of it—tends to focus on helping the poor (unless, of course, they've ladyparts wanting emptying) more than some of the others. —Not that I don't find pretty much all religion somewhat problematic. Nevertheless....