errors in geography

There have been stories as long as there have been roads. Some are easily disproven, like the optical illusion of Magnetic Hill in New Brunswick. Others not so much. It's surprisingly difficult to research if that T junction paves over the remains of a crossroads shrine.

The twentieth century and its proliferation of Cartesian-straight, long-distance highways should have put paid to the legends. Instead, travellers discovered even more.

There's the stretch of interstate between Tennessee and Georgia, not an exit or on-ramp for kilometres, and yet first all the cars in front have Tennessee licence plates, and then a few hundred metres after the state line they all have Georgia plates. The vehicles themselves are recognisable, but the transition is never visible.

There's the way the 401 curves around the southern part of London, Ontario, its exits merging into local roads that surround the city like a cordon. It's easy for a visitor not familiar with the interchanges to circle the municipality’s outer limits, trapped like a piece of flotsam in a whirlpool, until they finally discover the magic combination of turns and unmarked merge lanes to escape. Or else they despair and wake up in a Days Inn not too far from the shopping mall (there’s always a shopping mall), absent-mindedly eating junk food and watching some rerun on a local TV station, trying to remember what year it is and which car in the parking lot is theirs.

Elsewhere in Ontario, two signs point in different directions. One notes the road that leads away from the town of Erin. One indicates the direction of Halton Hills. Both are labelled, correctly, North.

There's the Afsluitdijk in the Netherlands, an extension of the E22 of Noord-Holland the A7 of Frieslandthat cut the Zuidersee in two. The causeway, entirely handmade, isn't much wider than the dual carriageway that runs along its surface. A glance to either the left or the right is equally likely to include a glimpse of an ocean-ready fishing trawler.

Halfway along is a road stop with a coffee shop on side of the road, and then, connected by a pedestrian bridge, a statue to commemorate the causeway's builders on the other side.

The coffee shop is full of truck drivers who pass this way several times a week. They stare into their mugs in silence, eye contact avoided. This isn't dike-reclaimed farmland or a drained marsh. This is nowhere, and no-one feels entirely safe until they reach the real dry land on the other side.

And then at last there are the roads which are paved so straight and have so few exits that it seems impossible to get lost on them — and so of course all the non-locals do. The Trans-Canada Highway, dubbed Highway 1 in Saskatchewan. Its western extreme reaches the Pacific Ocean. On the prairies it's kilometre after hypnotic kilometre of flat, smooth, unbroken road, humidity and the grey of the asphalt, and suddenly it's identical to Palm Beach Road in Navi Mumbai, except of course it's not, Navi Mumbai has far more trees. But both are roads, and like every road, the nowhere between destinations.

this is life with a sucralose allergy

  • Cranberry juice

It all started with a bladder infection about ten years ago.

I went to my doctor's, who diagnosed the infection and prescribed a course of antibiotics. After making me promise I would finish all of the prescription, she sent me out the door, scrip in hand, and mentioned as I left that drinking lots of cranberry juice would help.

There were two types of cranberry juice in the drug store's groceries aisle. I checked the labels carefully while I waited for the pharmacist to prepare my prescription. One type of juice was full-sugar. The other was reduced-sugar and lower-calorie, and trumpeted that fact via lighter-coloured labelling and a big notice on the front of the jug. I recalled that the previous time I went to see my doctor, for my general check-up, she said I should work on losing weight. Feeling virtuous, I selected two jugs of the reduced-sugar variety and brought them to the pharmacy counter to pay for along with the prescription.

I had one glass of cranberry juice with each meal, using them to wash down the prescribed antibiotics. After a few days, my skin got itchy, then blossomed into red, bumpy hives. I was retaining so much water some of my shoes and clothing no longer fit. I had a constant ache right in the pit of my stomach, and, not to be too detailed about it, but I was constipated.

The doctor called me to make sure I was still taking the antibiotics and to remind me to keep taking them until they were used up.

"I am," I said, "but other symptoms are showing up."

"That's not right," she said, and transferred me to her receptionist to schedule me for another appointment.

At the appointment, I took off my shoes and socks to show the doctor my feet. The hives were packed so closely together they looked more like a rash than individual sores.

"There's more," I said, "on my lower back and arms, but this is the worst concentration."

She shook her head. "This is something else. Are you taking any other medication?"

I was not.

"Are you eating or drinking anything outside your normal diet?"

"Well, cranberry juice, like you said," I said. "But I made sure I got the low-sugar kind, because I remembered you told me to —"

"Is it sweetened with sucralose?" she said. She rolled her eyes when I didn't respond right away. "Splenda."

"It..." I tried to picture the jug's label. "Yes. It has the logo on the front."

"You're going to have to throw it away," she said. "You're allergic to it."

"Are you sure?" I know doctors hate it when patients say that, but it just popped out. Splenda was supposed to be the safe artificial sweetener. Its slogan was, "tastes like sugar, because it's made with sugar." It was okay to heat. It wasn't linked with cancer. It didn't turn into formaldehyde in your body.

"Oh yes," she said. "I see it often. Use the regular cranberry juice. Water it down a little if the sugar bothers you."

I've never had so much sucralose-sweetened stuff in a short period of time as that particular exposure, but it took several run-ins with the following to make me more vigilant:

  • Diet soft drinks
  • Foods advertised as being reduced-fat/reduced-calorie, even if the emphasis is on less fat (low-fat yogurt is especially likely to have sucralose in it by-the-way)
  • Sugar-free gum
  • Sugar-free frozen yogurt

All of the above have given me reactions, including (in fact, usually) when I forgot to read the ingredients list until the reaction had started. So no, it's not psychosomatic. None of the reactions were as bad as the one from the cranberry juice, but that's because I ceased use after symptoms first appeared.

  • Doritos, Spicy Sweet Chili flavour*

I was having lunch with a friend when we noticed there was a new flavour of Doritos out. Neither of us felt like having a full bag with our lunches, so we bought one small bag to share.

Two chips were enough to give me two hives.

"What's in these things?" I said, and glanced at the back of the bag. Sure enough, there was sucralose listed.

And that's the thing about sucralose/Splenda. It's everywhere, including in food that is not even marketed as being diet/sugar-free.

* I just checked for a source for the ingredients list. I couldn't find a primary source, but for a secondary source I found, it looks like the sucralose has been since replaced with dextrose.

  • Protein powder
  • Tylenol and other over-the-counter medication, most often the "coated for ease of swallowing" varieties
  • Mouthwash (most often noticed in the alcohol-free antibacterial varieties)
  • Toothpaste
  • Gripe water, various flavours

Unlike, say, peanut allergies, it seems that most people with sucralose allergies get uncomfortable but non-life-threatening reactions. My reaction is consistent with the other food and drug reactions I have: hives, water retention, gastric distress related to said water retention. If I'm dehydrated to begin with and I have a reaction, I can get a headache as well, although drinking lots of water usually takes care of that and lessens the reaction symptoms at the same time. There are many anecdotes of a reaction triggering a migraine — coming from a family of migraine sufferers (although, thank goodness, not one of them myself), I can see that, especially if stress is also a trigger. "OMG I accidentally ate sucralose!" could easily turn into "OMG I'm getting a migraine!" if stress triggers are an issue.

Some people seem to get the "opposite" reaction from mine, in that they get diarrhoea instead of water retention/constipation. I kind of envy them, because at least their body is making quick work of getting rid of the allergen. I can have lingering symptoms over a couple of days.

Lip balm

I had a sucralose reaction yesterday afternoon. On Sunday I'd bought a tube of lip balm from L'Occitane (a company that is one of my go-to places because they don't pack products with icky ingredients), just quickly glancing at the ingredients list to check it was glycerin-based, not petroleum-based (I like how the glycerin ones feel on my lips better).

Unfortunately, I didn't read the entire ingredients list. Monday morning, the balm felt... weird. By midafternoon the tip of my tongue felt strange, if not actually numb, so I double-checked the ingredients.

And there was sucralose, about third from the end of the list.

Oh well, I thought, I'm not swallowing the stuff. Most of it's coming off on my tea mug. I just won't wear it every day.

During my commute home, I started to feel those little points of irritated, itchy skin that means I'm in danger of forming hives. Then the pit of my stomach started to hurt. By the time I got home, I felt ill enough that tossing a brand-new $12 tube of lip balm in the trash was a no-brainer.

Allergens vs. toxicity

This time during my post-reaction research, I found a lot of sites, from snopes.com to sucralose.org, throwing shade on people who claim sucralose can cause adverse reactions. The Snopes message boards on the subject were especially illuminating on how proud sceptics can be dismissive of other people's stories.

A few things about that:

  • There is a difference between an allergen and a toxin. Sweet almonds are good food, unless you're allergic to them, in which case they can be deadly. Bitter almonds are poisonous to everyone. So telling me my allergy isn't real because sucralose "isn't toxic" doesn't actually follow. I can't find any credible source saying it's toxic, but that doesn't mean I can eat it. I can eat peanut butter sandwiches as often as I like, but just one bite is enough to kill my peanut-allergic friends.
  • Sucralose.org, among others, claims that no-one, ever, since its invention, has been allergic to sucralose. I know two other people besides me. All of us have had the allergy confirmed by doctors. My doctor, I hope I made clear from the top of this post, has absolutely no tolerance for non-scientific or otherwise uninformed opinions, yet she was very familiar with people having reactions to sucralose. And yet when I search for things like "how common are sucralose allergies", I can't find anything about the rate at which the general population is affected.
  • While I agree with the old saw about the plural of anecdote not being data, it seems to me that there are a lot of anecdotes... but not a lot of data refuting them. The ones that do tend to conflate allergens with toxins, or spend more time attacking those who claim to have reactions than showing no-one's having reactions. Maybe I'm just searching using the wrong terms, but it doesn't seem like people are scrutinising sucralose/Splenda the way they did, say, aspartame.

I am most emphatically not advocating for sucralose to be removed from products. What I would like to see, however, are some changes to labelling, and to attitudes:

  • It only takes a tiny amount of sucralose to sweeten something. Consequently, it tends to get buried in ingredients lists, down at the end with the preservatives, emulsifiers, and other difficult-to-pronounce chemical terms. I know from personal experience that even if you're specifically looking for it, it's easy to miss. I would love to have it listed with the other common allergens like soy and eggs. If it doesn't merit the designation "common allergen" (and how many people are allergic, exactly? why does there seem to be no-one studying this?), at least note it separately, the way "contains aspartame" is.
  • Formulators of cosmetics, oral hygiene products, nutritional supplements, drugs: does your product really need sucralose in it? Is any consumer really going to miss it if it's not there, or think your product is inferior because of sucralose's absence? The lip balm I just tossed is a great example of a product probably not needing sucralose. It already has a glycerin base, which already makes it taste sweet. Or consider protein powders, which will never be consumed on their own anyhow. Leave off the artificial sweetener. Customers will flavour their protein shakes as they see fit.

The worst thing for me as someone allergic to this stuff, besides the ubiquity requiring a "constant vigilance" attitude to ingredients, is that sucralose hasn't been on the market that long. I can remember when it didn't exist at all.

Which just makes its ubiquity, and the laissez-faire attitude of both the manufacturing companies and the watchdog groups who are supposed to regulate them, all the more infuriating.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to force myself to drink some more water to try and rinse this stuff out of me.

15 minutes in 2008

Spring 2008 is when I read a Wired article about the walled garden Facebook was setting up, and about how despite their claims, absolutely everything that social network offered was already available elsewhere on the net, for less hassle, with no walls and better flexibility.

I had joined Facebook in 2007, but never cared for it. I found I spent far more time trying to navigate the opaque user interface than actually enjoying content, and I discovered to my horror that real-life friends who seemed more than reasonable in person spent a lot of time on-line sending each other "quizzes" designed to suck personal information from you.

Instead, I followed the suggestions in the Wired article and joined Twitter (for status updates), and started a blog (for "wall" postings). Actually, I started two blogs, the one you're reading now and the one for all things DIY.

Part of starting the blogs was researching which blogging platform to go with. I checked out WordPress, which meant signing up for an account, but ultimately decided to go with Blogspot.

Okay, done and dusted. Life moves on. Right?

Not so fast.

Around 2012, I started encountering error messages like this whenever I went to comment on someone's WordPress blog:

Notice how prominent the WordPress logo is. That became a factor in the troubleshooting later on.

Sometimes I could leave a comment after logging in with my Google account and doing some random browser back-and-forth. Sometimes I would get stopped at that point and not be able to leave a comment at all. Given that most of the time this was to participate in Friday Flash, I felt really bad about not leaving comments on posts that I'd read. A lot of people have their comments sections locked down at least a little bit, so that spammers will have a harder time leaving comments, so usually I would have to proffer up some real e-mail address. But WordPress knew about my main address, and it wasn't going to let me use it.

I looked into it, and discovered that WordPress has no way to let you delete an account. Even if that account does not, and never has had, a WordPress blog attached to it. You cannot use an e-mail WordPress knows and say, "meh, the security on this blog doesn't require me to log in, so I'm not going to."

This is... not the norm. Most other systems either let you choose, or else use cookies to keep things as un-painful as possible.

According to WordPress, this is a feature, not a bug. It's supposed to stop people from impersonating you. I'm not so sure, if only because if it weren't for fifteen minutes back in 2008, they would have no idea who I was anyhow.

It got to the point where for some Friday Flash authors, I just left them comments over Twitter, explaining that WordPress wouldn't let me leave comments on their blog.

Friday Flash doesn't have the participation it once did, but #craftblogclub does, and a lot of its regulars use WordPress. Once again I found that I couldn't participate in a community and leave comments on people's blogs. So I reluctantly used the Forgot Password feature to get into my WordPress account, found my profile, and changed the e-mail address to a different active one I have. You have to use a real e-mail address you can access because they verify it.

Okay, done and dusted again, right?

Not so fast.

Despite no longer being anywhere in my WordPress profile, WordPress was still giving me the same "you must log in" error message when I tried to leave a comment on a WordPress site. This time, however, when I went to log in and see if I had somehow not saved my profile changes, I got this error message:

So basically I couldn't leave a comment using my old, supposedly erased e-mail address, but I could only log in to WordPress if I used my new e-mail address. Which I did and... my old address wasn't anywhere in my profile.

At this point I was frustrated enough I decided to pursue things further, and contacted their support. It's interesting — all support is conducted via the community forums, and your question has to be tagged a certain way before WordPress staff will even look at it. Luckily for me, there was a more experienced WordPress user on the forums the night I wrote up my issue, and she tagged the forum thread so it would be looked at.

I received the response about 36 hours later — not bad for a turnaround time. They said that if I wanted to use the old e-mail "to open another account" (ha!) I had to remove it from my Gravatar profile.

Huh? What's this? Two profiles? Apparently so.

Fortunately, a direct link was provided in the response, because I hadn't noticed a second profile location for Gravatar when I was trying to fix my profile before. I had to go in, delete my old e-mail (now referred to as a "secondary address"), and just leave the new address (because we still can't delete an account once it is created).

And... yay? it worked.

So I suppose all's well that ends well, except that a) for at least two years I've only been told "accounts can't be deleted" with no instructions for a workaround, and b) again, all of this stems from fifteen minutes of activity in 2008.

Think of something that takes fifteen minutes, and think how it could affect the rest of your life. All I can think of is casting a voting ballot or getting pregnant, or maybe causing something catastrophic like a car accident. Nowhere would I include something to do with checking out a free (er, and legal) Internet service I never actually used. Think about it — even Revenue Canada and banks only keep or expect records from seven years ago.

And how does this work in the EU with their "right to be forgotten"? Does WordPress have a different process for people who live there? If they do, what happens to their supposed "security" logic?

Why, on something as ephemeral as the internet, am I committed to something that took 15 minutes in 2008?

#fridayflash: shimmer

"Vibrata. Vibra-Girl. The Vibrator… oh sorry. That last one sounds like a sex toy."

"They all sound like sex toys."

"Not… okay, yeah." Enduro-Man scratched at a spot just above the giant letter "E" symbol on his chest. He leaned forward and checked the City Hall clock tower. "If Zephyr’s intel is solid, we have about fifteen minutes."

Estressa clenched the lip of the rooftop they were sitting on. "Yeah."

"You okay? It'll be easier with you here, but if you want to back out, no-one will hold it against you."

"It's just —" A dozen things came to mind. Estressa chose the least personal one. "I'm a bit scared of heights."

"You don't have to sit on the ledge with me. Here." Enduro-Man swung behind Estressa and pulled her away from the edge. "Better?"

"Thanks."

Enduro-Man returned to the ledge. "You don't have a uniform yet either."

Estressa shrugged. "Black yoga pants, black t-shirt. Amaza said so long as it was comfortable, I could wait. My youngest is starting kindergarten next year, and —"

Enduro-Man shushed her with a wave of his hand. "There's the truck," he stage whispered. He half-climbed off the roof, holding onto the ledge with one hand. Even from her safe perch, just seeing him hanging eighteen stories above the street like that made Estressa want to pee. She stood to take the pressure off her bladder.

He swung back onto the roof. "Five minutes, starting now," he whispered. He frowned. “Maybe it should be noun-based, not verb-based."

"Sorry?"

"Your moniker. Like, how about Shimmer?"

"Sounds like an eyeshadow." Estressa turned and placed herself next to the penthouse wall, forehead and fingertips resting on the bricks. "I have to get ready."

"Fifteen seconds… ten, nine, eight… no!" Enduro-Man’s voice rose from a whisper to a bark. “The sensors are picking up the laser controllers! They're spooling up the hypno-ray already!"

Estressa pressed against the wall.

"Step aside," Enduro-Man said. “I can break through and —"

"No." Estressa squared her feet. "I got this."

She closed her eyes and thought this is way too dangerous and if Bill ever finds out you're leaving him to baby-sit so you can hang out with capes instead of going to night school like you said and what if the bad guys kill you? He'll have to raise the kids on his own and find some way to get them to remember their mum but leave out the part where she thought she could be a hero because apparently being a wife and a mum and a court reporter wasn't good enough and if things don't start working soon all the capes will think you're a fraud…

Her forehead pushed into the bricks, and she felt her fingers sinking in. She took a shuffling step forward, pressing her knees into the wall. It was like walking through a pile of sand.

So now you get to die a martyr because once they can see you inside they're going to shoot you before you're even free of this wall and Enduro-Man will be stuck outside until he smashes the wall down and damages the building, which is exactly what you're here to have him avoid doing because the insurance companies are lobbying against the capes and the Diamond King gang will turn on that hypno-ray with the diamond scattering the beam over the whole city and enslave Bill and the kids and everyone else…

She felt her hands reach into air, and solidity at the back of her head. Her face emerged from the wall. She was in darkness. At the opposite end of the room, Diamond King stood under a chandelier, giving a speech. He waved the stolen diamond around, demonstrating how it would fit in the hypno-ray’s lens clamp. The attention of the henchmen was on their boss. They all had their backs to her.

Estressa’s nose wrinkled as she noticed the room was full of cigarette smoke. Realising her hair and clothes would reek of it, and that she would have to explain that to Bill as well made her anxious enough that she finished passing through the wall easily.

Fortunately, her powers never seemed to make her sink through floors.

She glanced over her shoulder, quickly locating the door to the balcony before focusing on the henchmen again. She took a sliding, careful step backwards.

The Diamond King shouted, and the henchmen spun around. Estressa took three steps backwards, reaching the door. She unlatched it with her left hand while punching the nearest henchman with her right, years of multi-tasking ensuring her aim was true in both cases. The henchman knocked into the two approaching behind him, while Enduro-Man opened the door.

"Where did you get the muscles to punch like that?" he said as knocked out the groaning henchmen and leapt to nab a frightened-looking Diamond King.

"I lift toddlers four hours a day," said Estressa.

"What's that slang for, some kind of —" Enduro-Man crushed Diamond King's hand around the diamond, then extracted it and stuffed it in his cape pouch while the arch-villain howled in pain. "Wait, you mean real toddlers?"

"Yeah. Although the eldest two are grade-schoolers now. But they still like to be carried sometimes."

Enduro-Man pursed his lips and nodded as he handcuffed Diamond King. "Huh. Can you power down the hypno-ray while I bring this crook to the police?"

"Like unplug it?"

"No!" Diamond King shouted. "That will destroy it! It needs time to —"

Enduro-Man hoisted the arch-villain over one shoulder. "Yeah, that should be fine. See you at HQ, Shimmer."

He strode out the door. Estressa stepped over the henchmen, making sure they were all out cold, and decided just this once it was all right to pull out a plug by the cord.

She sighed. The name was going to stick.

light everywhere

In this age of selfies and surveillance, it's a real curse to dislike photos of yourself. In my case, I actually don't mind having my photo taken — I was raised by photography enthusiasts, so a lot of my childhood was spent being told to "hold still just like that for a second" — but I'm not crazy about my own looks. There's a reason why my last Twitter selfie was a picture of a small mirror with only part of my face reflected in it.

But I need photos for LinkedIn, and for the About page on this web site, and (eventually) for books I publish, and and and... so I've been keeping an eye out for photographers who are good at photographing people.

I was lucky enough to make Ardean Peter's acquaintance on Twitter a while ago. She posts regular blog and vlog entries that are fun and positive while remaining level-headed, and she does portrait photos and business photos. She has a fantastic web site showing off her work. I really love how she uses light, both in her portraits and her architectural photos — and I love that her photos of people, while usually posed, look like the subject is comfortable in their own skin.

Ardean's based in Toronto, same as me, so I signed up for her mailing list and entered the contest she held for a business portrait. And I won!

The session took about an hour and a half. That might make people who hate having their photos taken cringe, but it was a lot of fun. Ardean has enough energy for both herself and her subject (and probably to power a small town if we could find a way to collect it!). The photos where I'm smiling or laughing — I really was smiling or laughing about something we were talking about. The ones where I'm more serious-looking are from naturally quieter moments. I was really impressed by how well she built a rapport. It was like having a really good café chat and by-the-way-you're-posing-for-photos.

Ardean went through and picked out what she thought were the best shots, but made the whole set available, and sent me a link to download everything. I made a subset of the photographer selection, and cropped them down to make them more "head shot" (most of them are photos of me from the waist up).

There are cameras and photos everywhere. There are not too many real photographers. I am very grateful I got to get photographed by one.

the universe talks back

All hail Universa, Mother of All! Your humble creation beseeches you to —

Humble, oh yes, I know all about your humility mate, species with over ten billion sentient members and even then you stand out as more than a statistical blip. You and your beseeching. If you're not attending to some basic bodily function, you're beseeching me about something.

And I didn't create you, not directly. I just started the Big Bang. And whenever I dip into this fragment of space-time to check out the results, there you are, beseeching. Makes me wish I'd considered different parameters.

I am soooo glad you lot can't actually hear me, no matter what the nutter on the corner claims.

Holy Mother, I'd give anything for my dear children to be alive again…

Yes, and so would that runner-grain whose seeds you ate this morning. Wouldn't like it very much if I granted its prayer, hmmm?

Look, it’s awful to experience, I get it, it's just… when it comes right down to it, you're just a set of chemical reactions, you know? A clump of carbon-based matter. When your children got run off that cliff, gravity did what gravity does. It's the whole every action has an equal and opposite reaction thing, you know?

Shit. No, you wouldn't know. Wrong century. Oh, and wrong planet. Sorry. Some of that lot had started calling me “Holy Father” by the time they figured it out.

One really rotten thing about being omniscient is that it's so easy to get confused about the little details.

Thank You so much for this beautiful day.

Glad you like it, but you do realise it's just part of a weather system, right? And that prevailing wind you're so cheerful about because it’s making your feathers ripple, you do know it’s causing a gale on the other side of the ocean? So while you’re enjoying the sun, the next continent over is in full-on disaster mode. I’m sure it will be on your news transmissions soon if you bother to check them.

But hey, enjoy.

Because God is with us! God will help us destroy the heathens! A new kingdom of God will rise up from the ashes and

Got some bad news for you. I'm with everybody, and everything, because it was my Big Bang that set off the lot. Every single molecule in this universe.

And, you know, not that I'm not proud of all of it, I really like that speed of light as a constant thing, but as to who's running what on your little planet... I just can't be bothered. You can all blow yourself to bits and the laws of thermodynamics still hold, matter can neither be created nor destroyed, and so on and so forth.

Because you are going to blow yourself to bits. I'm not confined to time like you lot are, so — spoilers! — I know how it ends.

Er, ended. Ended. Just there. Right, what else is going on in this corner of space-time?

Oh Creatrix, if we could have but one miracle, let it be now as we —

I ought to know better, because I know everything there is to know, but this whole “miracle” business… you know, planning everything out before the Big Bang was hard work. It took me I don’t know how long, mostly because there wasn’t any space-time yet, but seriously…

It’s just I created a rational universe. There’s a lot of chaos in it, sure, but it’s rational. I could have made it irrational, but then I thought, hey, why worry about all the maintenance? Design it right up-front and let it spin on its merry way.

But instead you give me this miracle business. Learn a few things about space-time: that thing you want changed has already happened. I am not messing up my laws of physics to make you happy for a few moments.

Sometimes I think I should just wad it all up and start again. Then I think what a mess that would make my lab report.

Holy Mother, we beseech you, we pray that —

LA LA LA LA CAN’T HEAR YOU, CAN’T HEAR YOU, LA LA LA…

I’m taking a step back now. Just so. I’m taking a step right back, totally outside of space-time. I can’t hear you outside of space-time. It’s quieter from a distance.

Better from a distance.

Better.

punishing self-defence

My brother told me about this at Christmas-time, and I'm still pondering it, so it seems like it wants to be a blog post. What happened (at least the third-hand version) was this:

Niece the Elder (age 7) was at a reading table at school, the only girl in a group of boys. She was fine with that — most of her friends are boys. Like every other table in the class, there was a pile of books in the middle, and the kids at each table had to choose a book, read it, and write an assignment about it.

Even though she was fine with being in the group, one of the boys at the same table was not fine with having even one girl present. Niece the Elder wanted to read a book about cats, but the boy snatched it away and shoved a book about princesses at her.

"You have to read that, 'cos you're a girl," he said.

"But I want to read about cats," said my niece.

"Well, we're all boys, so we can't read about princesses."

"I want to read about cats!"

"Oooh, so what are you going to do about it? Cry? That's what girls do, cry. Crybaby!"

Nobody less than twice her size makes Niece the Elder cry, so instead she picked up the princess book and threw it at the boy.

It hit him in the face, so he started crying, which brought the teacher over. My niece was up-front about throwing the book, so she was told to go sit by herself and do the assignment. In this classroom (and this is a whole other blog post), sitting by yourself is in itself a punishment.

As my niece got up and left the table, she patted the boy on the arm. "Now who's the crybaby?" she said. That's when she got assigned a detention.

In the note to Niece the Elder's parents, the teacher added that my niece was assigned to another group "where she would be happier." Presumably one with no young Archie Bunkers in it.

And here's my thing.

Of course Niece the Elder should have been punished for throwing the book. She has to learn that physically hurting people to get your way, even when you're in the right, is a bad thing to do. I think that part is beyond dispute. Physical violence cannot be condoned or excused in a classroom setting.

But I keep thinking about it from the boy's point of view. Sure, he got hit in the face with a tossed picture book, but it was his own actions that started this whole thing. If he'd been less of a junior asshole, none of this would have happened.

As far as I've been able to learn, besides a mark on his face that has long faded by now, this kid got everything he wanted with no consequences. He got to make his reading circle boys-only. He removed the only person in the group who had the guts to stand up to him. He bullied and belittled a fellow classmate for no other reason than his own budding sexism, and he totally got away with it.

So yeah, I approve Niece the Elder getting a detention because of the book-throwing, but I can't figure out why the kid who started it all not only got off scot-free, but was positioned as the entirely innocent injured party. And although this particular incident was a boy versus girls thing, I recognise it's a bullies versus the bullied thing. Boys can be victims of bullying too, and girls can be shits.

I've been discussing this with my friends and thinking back on my own years in elementary school, and we have similar stories. J-A recounted how a boy used to pinch her when the teacher wasn't looking, and when she pinched back in self-defence, he would howl. Then she would get in trouble with the teacher. I have memories of being told not to "pick on" classmates — after they'd picked fights with me, and I'd had the... luck? temerity? to win.

An interesting point about my experiences: although usually the reason kids would pick on me was because I was a "browner" (if that's not in your local slang, they meant kid with good grades, teacher's pet), I also happened to be one of the tallest kids in the class. From a physical standpoint, if I'd ever learned to fight — not that I ever did — I could have seriously hurt any of the girls and most of the boys in my classes up to about Grade 5 without even thinking about it. It wasn't just mean to pick on me; it was potentially suicidal. They were counting on my track record of not hitting back to get away with it. Which they did. When it was really bad, I used to hide in the back of the class and read a book during recess until the teacher specifically told me to go outside.

Damn. Now I wish I'd risked a few detentions and decked the little bastards while I still could.

Niece the Elder is only in Grade 2, and she's one of the smallest kids in her class — she doesn't have the physical advantage of height that I chose not to use. She's been in school for four years, and already she takes detentions in stride as part of the cost of getting an education. Her parents have long noted a pattern: she never starts a fight, but if someone starts one with her, she'll damn well finish it. Meanwhile, her marks are among the highest in the class, so eventually I suppose she'll start getting picked on for those in addition to liking cats over princesses.

I admire her willingness to stick up for herself, and for keeping punishments in perspective. When I was her age, even a verbal reprimand from a teacher would leave me upset for days.

But I'm very uneasy with this idea that people who stick up for themselves when they're bullied get punished, while the ones who did the bullying get coddled as victims. I keep thinking about how this is going to play out in high school... and then university... and then adulthood. I keep thinking about what Niece the Elder is actually learning from these incidents: not just that violence is bad, but that sticking up for yourself leads to punishment, while the instigator never gets touched. And what's that boy learning? That he can verbally push people into acting out, at which point he may need to work on ducking faster, but he will get his way if he keeps acting like a shit.

Neither of those are very good lessons.

#BestReads2015

The good news is that this year, I read a lot of books. 

The bad news is that most of them were for external obligations, not for the straight enjoyment of it. That always casts a shadow on reading, because it's hard to savour some prose when at the back of your mind you're thinking, "Gah! I'm only halfway through this thing and I've got eight more books to go after this!"  

It gets worse if those "eight books to go", plus other obligatory lists, are outside one's normal genres to read in. Left to my own devices, I mostly read science fiction and mysteries, with some non-fiction, fantasy, historical, and literary fiction mixed in. This year, I mostly read literary fiction, because that was what populated the majority of those aforementioned lists. I find myself siding with the camp, mostly of SF fans, who call literary fiction "domestic fiction". In fact, I'd switch over to that term exclusively except that so few other people would know what I'm talking about. It's not that I don't like literary fiction — I did wind up enjoying a number of these obligatory novels, despite the pressure to read through them promptly — it's just that the more I read them, the less I understand why literary fiction is considered both deeper and more neutral than so-called genre fiction. Literary fiction has a tendency to portray people and relationships — family, friends, romantic attachments — in a certain light, with certain cultural signifiers attached, and say, "this is normal; you can relate to this; now here's the extraordinary part" while at the same time being wholly alienating (to me). Science fiction and mystery stories say, "here's the extraordinary thing" and then let you orient yourself into the story with the signposts you recognise.

A quick note on The Martian: I had my paperback copy of The Martian all pulled out and flipped to a reference page when I started this post, and then decided not to put it in the list. Not because I didn't love it, because I did, both the film (which I saw first) and the novel. I liked the pop culture references, and the way it reminded me of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (of course), both in the "castaway" plot and the amount of prose spent showing the math and working out things. People think showing the math was invented for hard science fiction, but that's because not enough people read both hard science fiction and Daniel Defoe. And not enough CP Snow, for that matter, but I digress.

I wound up leaving it out, though, because... it's problematic. It's plausibly problematic, which is to author Andy Weir's credit, but it opens a whole can of problematic worms about where "nerd" ends and "asshole" begins, and while I think it's great that it does that, it deserves its own blog post. I should write that. I should write lots of things.

Anyways, here's this year's list. Fiction first, then non-fiction.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I reviewed Persuasion last March as part of a different group reading & blogging event. I always like Austen, even when her characters are annoying me, like they do in Emma. For all that people love to make fun of Austen fans, for all the jokes about Darcy and formal dining room manners, Austen's actual work has almost painfully incisive observations about the human condition. She spends a lot less time describing ladies' dresses than her modern-day detractors do. I'd even argue that Austen is more important to read now — her psychological observations hold true even though the world has changed, and put paid to the "oh, but technology" arguments condoning poor behaviour.

Persuasion is particularly compelling, because it spends more time than some of Austen's other novels showing how easy it was to lose one's place in the gentility, how easy it was to become destitute and cast out. For all the gentle social outings described, it depicts a harshness one doesn't often see in a novel categorised as a "romance".

Here's the extraordinary thing: if a woman was stuck with an unsupportive family, if she was browbeaten into refusing just one marriage proposal, she was at real and serious risk of becoming homeless and destitute, because all other options for supporting herself either paid very poorly or were illegal.

The Cuckoo's Calling/The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith

I always said JK Rowling would be fabulous at writing mysteries, so when it was revealed she was doing just that under the pen name Robert Galbraith, I was thrilled. I think the magic and wizard-jargon and other world-building details from her fantasy books made people forget (or not notice?) that she's a very sharp observer of human nature. She's in Austen's literary lineage in that sense, I suppose — both of them can depict character so accurately it makes the reader wince a bit, then turn it this way for a humorous effect, or that way for pathos.

Cormoran Strike, the detective protagonist of both novels (I haven't read the third one released this past autumn), is the kind of barely-hanging-on yet incredibly capable character mystery readers have seen before in Sam Spade and Kurt Wallander. Strike's own personal life is often a spectacular mess, which contrasts beautifully with his adept way of determining the truth.

I'm recommending the first two books as one here, but The Silkworm will be of particular interest to writers, given that the murder victim is an author and all of the suspects are writers or otherwise connected to the publishing business.

The Killing Moon, NK Jemisin

NK Jemisin has been on my to-read list for at least two years, and now that I've read one of her books, I definitely want to read more. I know she's been a target of the people behind the various Hugo Puppies slates, and I have to wonder if they've actually read any of her work, because they claim to prefer the science fiction and fantasy genre as it "was" in some version of the past or another, and The Killing Moon, to me, is very classic fantasy. It reminded me a lot of the fantasy books I read in the 80s and 90s, though the books were all published in the 70s.

The Killing Moon takes place in a world modelled after (but not identical to) the Nubian reign of ancient Egypt. I love watching archaeology documentaries on ancient Egypt, so I got hooked very quickly. In fact, reading this book got me into watching videos about the real-life ancient Nubians.

Like Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong series, The Killing Moon is a novel which reads as fantasy, but as I understand from the author's afterword, the fantastic setting does have a science fiction backstory supporting it. Certainly the worldbuilding is very complete and compelling — it's easy to imagine other characters yet unknown, on other adventures in other realms of the same world.

The central characters in The Killing Moon all belong to a state-sanctioned religious order which... let's just say their central tenets do not match very well with the Abrahamic ones we're used to taking for granted in the Western world. It was fascinating to read of the characters working through decisions and actions based on a moral code which was alien to the industrialised world. Favourite detail: in the city which serves as the main setting, it is illegal to have buildings with doors to shut off rooms, because that makes it more difficult for the official priest class to steal into residents' bedrooms at night... and kill those sleeping within for ritual purposes. The wonder of it is, Jemisin convincingly portrays it, when done with the right intent and methods, as a caring, considerate act. It's a sublime empathic experience for a reader.

The use of magic in the story is, like the world-building, logical and immersive. I don't remember reading anything in the afterword about the science behind the magic, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if there was some.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed

This is such a hard novel to describe. Batman meets 1,001 Arabian Nights is probably the closest, but that falls very short. It's an incredible adventure in a very classic vein — I could see it as a filmed adventure series like they used to show in cinemas in the 30s and 40s — but there's this undercurrent of sadness to it, of despair, so when the funny parts happen (and they are hilarious) it feels a bit like the reader is, like the characters, laughing to distract themselves from the calamitous ending of an era.

But over that sadness, lots of adventure happens. Swashes are buckled, magical beasts vanquished, enchanted potions drunk. One thing I appreciated is that instead of being relegated to obscure, Yoda-type mentoring, the older characters are all front and centre. They may be too old and stiff for this adventuring stuff, but if evil threatens their city, they're going to go down fighting, damnit. The younger characters (and they're present and involved as well) are also important, but they bring a different focus. That that, Joseph Campbell.

The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer

I am not part of the legions of stalwart Amanda Palmer fans. Some of her songs I like a lot; others I don't. When I agree with her, I agree with her completely, but I don't always agree with her.

In The Art of Asking, though, Palmer isn't asking the reader to agree with her all the time, or give her everything she asks for. She's just asking us to learn how to ask for help when we need it, learn how to give help when someone else needs it. That might sound very basic, but as much as she's known for being a forward-thinking artist, it almost feels like the book is asking us to remember something which seems to have been lost along the way: the idea that a social interaction can be mutually beneficial, the idea that, as social animals, human beings do need to work together. My favourite part was when Palmer described how, the whole time Thoreau was living by Walden pond and writing about self-sufficiency and isolation, his family would drop by once a week and give him a batch of their home-made doughnuts.

I listened to the audiobook version, and this is one time I strongly recommend listening to a book instead of reading it. The audiobook has all sorts of extra aural goodies, mostly in the form of songs at the ends of major sections. It's part autobiography, part manifesto, part call to action. What action? You'll have to ask yourself.

Here's the TED talk Palmer gave which led to her writing this book:

 

Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull

By my estimation, there are approximately fifteen gazillion business books out there, out of which about fourteen gazillion are about productivity and work culture. They all range from overly narrow to just plain wrong.

Creativity, Inc. is the history of Pixar, from Ed Catmull's initial research into computer animation when he was a student, to Disney's acquisition. Catmull himself outlines in an early chapter what makes it different from other management books. Most business books crow about the successes of the author, and claim that if you copy them, you'll be successful too — except it seems they're never quite applicable to the situation you find yourself in. Instead, Catmull gives example after example of all the things he, Pixar management, and Pixar in general did wrong, and then goes over the consequences of the mistake and what happened to make things better again. A lot of what he presents is counter-intuitive to current corporate thinking, but he argues for why the Pixar approach is better. And no, he doesn't just say, "we've had a string a hit movies — even the duds had good box office returns".

Maybe it's his software development background coming out, but the case studies and framework Catmull depicts are applicable well outside the constraints of a computer animation film company. He's talking about how to work a problem, about attitudes, about creating an environment where people are truly safe to speak up when they see a better way of doing things. And, oddly enough for someone with no formal business education and who works in a very specialised industry, his ideas make way more sense than anything I've read in other business books. A lot of what's in Creativity Inc. would apply to a volunteer group or a one-off, family-based project (say, a major home renovation) just as equally as it would to the for-profit working world.

Along the way the reader gets a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of some already-classic films, and some refreshing observations on what it was like to work with Steve Jobs. Catmull's depiction of Jobs — appreciative and respectful, but nowhere near a hagiography — feels far more realistic than a lot of the other material out there.

guest post: Accidental Sorcerers print version released

Katherine here: I made Larry's acquaintance via the Friday Flash on-line writing group, and have enjoyed reading (and reviewing) his short stories and novels. It's a true honour to host the cover reveal for the print version of Accidental Sorcerers.

Over to Larry:

Together, we are stronger.

With eBook sales passing 20,000, the Accidental Sorcerers novellas are coming to print in August 2015, with the release of the first three stories in a single paperback. Join Mik Dragonrider, his love and fellow apprentice Sura, and their mentor (and Sura's father) Bailar the Blue, as they journey Termag and stumble into new adventures. A sorcerer's life is supposed to be sedate, but trouble has a way of challenging these three.

In the first book, Accidental Sorcerers, Mik begins his sorcerous career by awakening an ice dragon — and living to tell about it. He finds his mentor, a new life, a first love… and more adventure!

The tale continues in Water and Chaos. The Conclave of Sorcerers sends Bailar, Sura, and Mik to Mik's hometown, hoping to recruit other youths with sorcerous talent. But a misunderstanding sends Mik far away, on his own, to uncover the secrets of a nest of rogue sorcerers.

The Sorcerer's Daughter begins with Bailar teaching Sura and Mik more combat magic, so they in turn can teach it to beginning apprentices. But when Sura discovers her high-born ancestry, and the price it carries, they may need all that training to escape!

The stories carry on… and a second collection (Books 4-6) is planned for a Spring 2016 release!

There will also be a companion eBook. People who buy the paperback can get the eBook free though the Kindle Matchbook program.

Author bio:

Larry Kollar lives in north Georgia, surrounded by kudzu, trees, and in-laws. His day job involves writing user manuals—some of which may have been fiction, but not by intent. He has had short fictional works published in the Hogglepot Journal, the Were-Traveler, and the anthology Best of Friday Flash, Vol. 2. Longer works include his first novel, White Pickups, and the popular Accidental Sorcerers series. For more of his strange fiction, and even stranger reality:

Bloghttp://farmanor.blogspot.com/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/FARfetched58

For first looks and exclusive offers, join Larry’s “Fleet Commanders” mailing list: http://eepurl.com/nDOP9

guest post: how do you find the right writer's group?

One of the things I love about writing is that I can do it all by myself. I can be quiet and retreat into my own thoughts. I tend to lose all track of time.

Unfortunately, that aloneness can also be the biggest drawback to being a writer. It is likely that your friends and family don’t understand how your brain processes things or get the jargon you use to describe your work. And that is when you need to be in the company of writers.

I just finished volunteering at the Willamette Writers Conference, which I do nearly every year. I get a total jolt of inspiration and excitement when I attend. And I love being surrounded by people who know that WIP means work in progress. It’s such a great sense of camaraderie I can’t get anywhere else.

I was lucky in that I stumbled across Willamette Writers soon after my first book was published and I started devoting time to fiction. It was a good fit for me.

But it doesn’t always work out as easily for other writers, especially if you’re looking for a critique group, where fit is of great importance. So, how can you tell if you’re in the right group?

First, make sure the topics of discussion are suited to your career level.

When I interviewed J. Anderson Coats for Pacific Northwest Writers, one of the things we talked about was the group of writers she connected with online. They were all in the midst of getting their first book published, so they spoke the same language, were dealing with the same concerns, and had the same fears and excitements.

You’ll want to make sure that you’re working with a group of writers who can understand the career phase you are in so that you can all support each other and grow together.

Second, you must feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback. The type of feedback offered in critique groups can vary widely, from no-holds-barred editing to kind and gentle sandwiches of positive feedback – opportunity for improvement – positive feedback.

There was a scene in season 1 of Jane the Virgin where she didn’t read the instructions on feedback and wrote some feedback for one of the writers that didn’t fit with the goals of the group. There were madcap antics as she tried to take back the cards she’d written her notes on — and tears as the person receiving the criticism wasn’t emotionally prepared to hear what Jane had to say. Make sure you’re on board with the goals of the group so you can give and get the best critiques of your work.

Have you been part of a writer’s group? What was your experience like? Tell us in the comments below. 

 

Author Bio: Jennifer Roland is a freelance and marketing writer with more than twenty years' experience in newspaper, magazine, and marketing environments. Jennifer also works as a virtual assistant to writers, helping them build their online presence and connect with readers so they can focus on what they love — writing.

She loves fiction and writes that under the name Jennifer C. Rodland. She hopes to put all of the lessons she learned writing this book into getting more of that published.

Find Jennifer online: 

http://10takesonwriting.com

http://twitter.com/jenroland

http://instagram.com/thejenroland

 

 

book review: 10 Takes Pacific Northwest Writers

When I confront a new topic or one I need to know more about, I look for a way I can write an article, a paper, or web content about it. So I jumped at the chance to write a book about writing.

10 Takes: Pacific Northwest Writers is an interesting book because it takes a constraint (write about writers living in the Northwest region of the USA) and turns it into a broad survey of successful, working writers using a wide variety of genres and forms. Each of the ten chapters is an interview transcript with a different writer, prefaced with a brief author bio and list of published works. There's a novelist turned screenwriter, an urban fantasy novelist, a poet who also teaches about prison literature, a comic book writer... if your preferred form isn't covered here, there is an interview with someone who does something very close.

Interview transcripts can be tricky things to read on a page, but Roland does an excellent editing job here. The transcripts are conversational and still sound like a spoken discussion of writing, but are easy to read. For the most part, Roland keeps out of the dialogue, with just quick, easily-identified prompts here and there so that the reader understands the context of the writer's comments.

I really appreciated the straightforward, down-to-earth approach each of the writers took to discussing craft and career. It really struck me that these are people discussing their jobs, or one of their jobs for those who have multiple ones. A lot of the comments are more practical and less theoretical — which is to say, even when theory gets discussed, it's because it's useful. There's a mindfulness which permeates all of the interviews which makes them all enjoyable to read.

This is one "writer's" book that I think could be enjoyed even by people who don't write; any appreciation of the written word would make it appealing.

Author Bio: Jennifer Roland is a freelance and marketing writer with more than twenty years' experience in newspaper, magazine, and marketing environments. Jennifer also works as a virtual assistant to writers, helping them build their online presence and connect with readers so they can focus on what they love — writing.

She loves fiction and writes that under the name Jennifer C. Rodland. She hopes to put all of the lessons she learned writing this book into getting more of that published.

Book Summary: From novelists to poets to playwrights, Jennifer Roland interviews a variety of authors who have one thing in common — they have all chosen to make the Pacific Northwest their home. Covering a diversity of disciplines — from comics, fantasy, and detective novels to long-form poetry and illustrated children's series — ten distinguished authors provide unique perspectives about their craft, provide helpful writing advice and tips for success, and share their passion for living and writing in the Pacific Northwest. Buy the book here.

Find Jennifer online: 

http://10takesonwriting.com

http://twitter.com/jenroland

http://instagram.com/thejenroland

hunting for the queen of cups

Three weeks ago, as I was getting dressed, the underwire on my favourite bra poked out.

So I put on my second-favourite bra, and by the time I got to work, its underwire was poking out. I went to the washroom, pulled out the escaping underwire so it wouldn't scratch me, and went through the day hoping it wasn't obvious I was asymmetrical.

Loose-fitting, empire-waisted... I bet no formulas were involved, either.

Loose-fitting, empire-waisted... I bet no formulas were involved, either.

The following morning I put on my third favourite bra. About twenty minutes before I got to work... yup. Underwire poking out. This time it was on the other side, though.

Like every single woman I've ever talked to, I have bra-shopping horror stories. For a garment nearly every adult woman (and some drag-queen men) wear, it really is total hell to find one that fits. It doesn't matter if you know your size, because "your size" in one brand will not be the same in another brand. There's a reason why some women's lingerie drawers are filled with the exact same bra in different colours, and it's not lack of imagination on the owners' parts.

I tried to shop in-person for what I thought was "my size", and the sales clerk at the lingerie shop said she'd never even heard of that size. (It was the size I was wearing at the time — I'd managed to mend Bra #3.)

Since bricks-and-mortar shop clerks were hostile and unhelpful, I ordered on-line, and the bra that arrived in the mail didn't fit. "Didn't fit" in this case meant "squeezed so tight I felt I could relate to what Carrie Fisher went through filming Star Wars".

Okay, this wasn't working. Time to think this over again.

I did some research, and found the Reddit board A Bra That Fits. There are some fascinating, and depressing, discussions on that board. While the posters seem to agree with the well-worn stat that 85% of women are wearing the wrong-size bra, they also point out that far fewer than 85% of women are idiots. If women can have a successful career, rear children, and do all the other things functioning adults do, surely buying lingerie shouldn't be so arcane?

A Bra That Fits has a related web page that explains the vagaries of bra sizing, and why women get misled as to which size fits them. The current bra sizing standard used in UK/US/Canada/Australia (and New Zealand?) was invented in 1932, and hasn't been updated since. Think about how much taller and larger women in those countries generally are compared to what they were in 1932. Yeah. The discussion board's regulars have also analysed the "plus 4" or "plus 5" sizing formula commonly used in lingerie shops, and have determined that it's designed to encourage women to buy bras with bands which are too large and cups which are too small. The result is a size which fits more neatly into the common offerings at shops, but which typically provides insufficient support for women with larger busts, and discomfort all around.

The discussion board regulars have created a size calculator to let women determine their true bra size. I tried it. The size was nowhere near what I usually wore, but the Reddit posts were full of stories of women discovering the best-fitting size was nowhere near what they usually wore. I went back on-line and ordered a bra in my "new" size.

This time, the band was more comfortable, but the cups were big enough I could have got both breasts into one of them. I could wear the "new size" bra over my old, worn-out bra, and still had room.

If you try out the calculator, you'll see it has a caveat posted that the size calculation will become inaccurate if your measurements are outside a certain range. I am not in the range. Note that the traditional sizing formula will also not work for me. Both formulas start to give inaccurate answers if you are either side of the range. This is why "oh, women just need to grab a measuring tape and a calculator so they know their correct bra size" is nonsense. I give points to the Reddit group for being up-front about the limits on the calculator, and for acknowledging the formulas can only get you so far.

I was getting tired of racking up "dead" transactions on my credit card, waiting for the on-line returns department to reverse the charges, so I decided to head out to the bricks-and-mortar shops again. I met up with J-A for lunch, and she offered to be Sam to my Frodo, wandering the department stores and specialty shops of downtown Toronto until we found something that fit me.

As with the fictional Sam, I had to wonder if she would have agreed so readily if we had known what the journey was going to be like. I suspect trekking through rough country to drop a magical ring into a volcano would have been easier.

We only went to two shops. The first stop was at a flagship department store that had always been reliable in the past, but which totally struck out this time (to be fair, they had a lingerie sale on, so sizes were limited). Out of the entire, enormous lingerie section, there were only two shelves, and one brand, in either my old size or my new size. The sales clerk didn't offer to measure me, and disappeared once she had led me to the little corner where my sizes were. I tried on two bras, both of which were too small in some places and too large in others, and promptly gave up.

The second shop is where I usually get my jeans and office wear. They have a lingerie section, but I've never bought anything from it because they didn't carry my old size. We went in, looking for bras that were in between my old size and my new one. Six bras in a variety of sizes collected, a sales clerk got me a change room, and I started trying them on.

None of them were fitting, but the last one came close.

I had the change-room door half-open so J-A could see what didn't fit where, and the sales clerk asked if she could check something. Usually I don't like getting this close to total strangers, but at this point I was too frustrated to mind. She put her fingers behind the back strap, and could fit four fingers in without even touching me. We agreed, measurements be damned, this was a good sign that the band was too big. She disappeared into the shop floor, and came back with a bra that was two (!) band sizes smaller, but one cup bigger.

After you've tried on eight bras at two different shops, trying on a ninth doesn't seem like that big a hassle. Back into the change room I went.

And what do you know. The damn thing fit.

I tried on seventeen bras in total yesterday, and found four that fit (two of them are identical, just in different colours).

Now, here are some sizing stats:

Old size: 40B
New, calculated size: 46DD
In between, estimated size: 44C
Size that fit: 40D

Remember, there is an entire sister blog on this site where I post about my DIY work, most of which is clothing I make for myself. My mum and grandmother made clothes for themselves and for me. I've known about ease and alterations and shaping since my age was in single digits. I grew up listening to, and participating in, advanced discussions about fit. Before this shopping trip, I was seriously considering taking a course in bra making. I might still do that.

Recall as well that, as with all women's clothing, there are judgements attached to every size available, and in the case of bras, cup sizes in particular. We've all heard it: A cups are "fried eggs", D cups are "curvy". Anything bigger than a DD or so is "huge".

I've always been told I have small breasts, and shamed for it from some quarters. And now it turns out I'm a D, which might still be small in proportion to the rest of me, but does prove the judgey people wrong — not that they were ever right. My breasts have never changed that much, although they definitely "present" better in the new bra (I spent part of this morning making sure my shirts still fit all right, since the new bra means both breast and non-breast tissue are sitting in different places than they did before.) One of the things I've learned in the past couple of weeks is that cup sizes change as the band size changes, even though the letter designator stays the same.

Look what it took to find a bra that fit. Is it any wonder 85% of women are wearing the wrong size?

Men: J-A, the sales clerk, and I were trying yesterday to think of a single men's item of clothing which would necessitate standing around shirtless in a changeroom, trying on seventeen different versions to find four that fit. We couldn't think of anything. Any ideas? There's getting measured for a suit, but as I understand it, you get to keep your shirt on for that.

Postscript: J-A sent me this video of men who voluntarily wore bras for a week, just to feel what it was like.

the hero myth

I am just old enough to have seen the original Star Wars movie at the theatres, when it first came out. I've been thinking a lot about that experience, and about the hype that followed, now that I've finished reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The "Star Wars proof", as I've come to think of it, rests on the following syllogism:

  1. George Lucas deliberately wrote Star Wars to follow the monomyth as defined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  
  2. Star Wars was and is a huge hit, and a cultural phenomenon!  
  3. Therefore, if writers want a huge hit (or just a successful story, period), they should follow the example of Star Wars and use the monomyth in their own writing. 

As with all syllogisms, it needs to be tested point by point.

#1 is certainly true, on its face — as I mentioned last blog post, Lucas is on the record with his admiration of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

#2 is also certainly true. Star Wars Day was started by an ad congratulating Margaret Thatcher, for pity's sakes. Star Wars fandom shows up in places as mainstream as Friends — that episode is going to be mostly opaque if you don't know the references.

#3 is where the syllogism breaks down, as syllogisms often do (1. I like fish, 2. Cats like fish, 3. I am a cat). The conclusion of the syllogism assumes that Star Wars was a hit because it was written to follow the structure of the monomyth.

I spent some time reading discussion boards on this topic while I was getting this blog post ready, wanting to make sure my own memory of seeing it on its first theatre release weren't faulty. It doesn't seem like it was (do some Googling for commentary if you want to see third-party opinions). People do mention The Hero's Journey, but they also talk about how the good characters and bad characters were easy to tell apart, how there were so many recognisable tropes from the old adventure serials of the 30s and 40s, how wonderful the special effects were. They also point out (and I'm glad I'm also not the only one here) that while adults liked Star Wars, it was the kids who loved it.

Funny thing about that. You'd think Luke Skywalker would be the character all the kids wanted to be. But I remember seven-year-old-me chose Leia, not just because she was the token woman, but because she had attitude and could fire a blaster. My second choices were C3PO and Obi-Wan Kenobi. My younger brother (he was four when he saw it) became an instant R2D2 fan. I remember local magazines having C3PO and R2D2 on the cover; not so much the so-called hero. (Which is not to say Mark Hamill did a poor job; on the contrary, he gave Luke's quiet moments (like those bits on the Millennium Falcon) a depth that rounded out the character in far more ways than any lines he was given to say.)

Then there's the whole Han Solo arc. Never mind the farm boy who saves the galaxy, Han is a down-and-out smuggler who gets the princess. He's the guy who goes from only having himself, his ship, and his one-wookiee crew as priorities, to being a full-out fighter in the Rebellion. He's the survivor who discovers principles. There's a reason why fans freaked out and started the "Han shot first" meme, when Lucas tweaked the film after its initial release.

The paradox is that the films are so widely loved, yet so much of the writing is reviled. Most of the dislike is aimed at the sequels-which-are-really-prequels, but it's cast a more analytical eye on the original trilogy as well. If the Force is something you inherit, why doesn't Leia seem to have it? Why are there virtually no other female characters besides Leia (and don't bring up that senator)? What the hell was Obi Wan doing all those years in the desert? Baby-sitting from a distance is no way to keep occupied.

I'm just not convinced people love Star Wars because it's such a great example of the Hero's Journey. I love it for the characters, and the setting, and yeah, the special effects. The plot, meh — it beggars belief just a few too many times. Consider all the "you can't hit an exhaust hatch with two torpedoes which have to bank at a right angle almost immediately after being fired" theories:

So what am I getting at? Just this: having read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I'm just not convinced it's ultimately that useful. Better to read the original myths, or to work through a plot approach with a stronger focus on structure, like Martha Alderson's The Plot Whisperer.

audio(book)

Have you ever read audio(book)? It's okay if you haven't. It just means you weren't an MFA student when the book surfaced, briefly, before disappearing from the web.

Having said that, if you've been out clubbing any time in the last five years, you've probably danced to it. Let me explain.

audio(book) was one of those, um, works that didn't have enough fiction in it to be fiction, but didn't have enough of a grasp on reality to be non-fiction. Basically it's a weirded-up analysis of the SGML documentation standard, and about as interesting as that sounds. The first section starts off as a direct plagiarism of a SGML training document from about fifteen years ago, before morphing into a sort of writing exercise, where the narrative spins off every time it hits a word that can be twisted into a pun. Example: the "M" in SGML, "markup", got broken into "mark up", which led to the word "bruise", which led to a rather uptight, distanced attempt at describing rough sex. Not surprisingly, the author had a field day with that final "L", "language". After quoting from Knuth to Derrida, with a quick dash of James Joyce, the section devolved into a mass of angle-bracketed structure tags, with no content in them except for formatting tags.

The second section runs through all the Burroughesque tropes about language being a virus, about humans being symbol manipulation soft machines, about everything meaning nothing and everything at once. The typography and layout gets really creative in this part, or it will if you tell your e-reader to use the embedded fonts. You also need to use the same e-reader the author had — which, surprise, is an obscure model created by a lone inventor's Kickstarter campaign, and which made its funding goal but never caught on with the general market.

The third and final section is an essay, claiming that all data is equal, and that how humans consume it, text or images or sound, doesn't matter. The experience will change with the medium, but the original data is irrelevant. Borges' famous story about the library gets name-checked, but not quoted. There's a lot of suspicious hand-waving about McLuhan — suspicious because all the references come from one source, and only the first fifteen pages of that source. And then yeah, there's some more Derrida, and some hat-tips to Baudrillard's Simulations, which call into question whether the author of audio(book) actually knows what a third-level simulation is.

The essay is short, but it's padded out by about 15,000 words of footnotes, all of which are lengthy quotes from the authors I've already mentioned. Oh, and one lonely Virginia Woolf quote, from The Second Common Reader.

The whole thing got converted to EPUB, and thrown onto a couple of university servers in a quasi-clandestine way. Which is to say, they were in public web server directories, but no-one seems to have bothered making links to them for the longest time. There's an eighteen-month gap between the date/time stamp on the EPUBs and the folders they're in, and the first known link, on a class discussion board at one of the universities.

The original cover image, by the way, is not just a mess of random black-and-white noise patterns, but the text of the book itself with a BMP header string tossed onto the start.

Meanwhile, a WAV file of the EPUB was created by renaming the file extension and adding a WAV header onto the front of the file. The conversion was very brute-force — if you look at the WAV file in a plain-text editor, you'll see that most of the original text and formatting is intact, just with minor alterations for when the audio players froze on the data. The WAV was mixed with some house beats, converted to MP3, and the resulting abomination was uploaded to several music sites. Because it was posted for low/no price and tagged as dance music, it caught the eye of a few club DJs. It became an unlikely hit when they tried using it to clear the floor at the end of the night, and discovered (to their horror, no doubt), that the dancing masses liked it.

And that's all there was, and all there is, to it. If you ever happen to meet any earnest grad student who thinks they've found the work for their thesis, and it turns out to be audio(book), send them my way. I'll try to straighten them out before they do anything stupid — like actually propose it to their thesis supervisor.

Right, the last bit. I should explain how I wound up with this particular albatross around my neck. No, I am not the author of audio(book). I did, however, get pressured into formatting the thing, in all three versions: EPUB, BMP, WAV/MP3. The cymbal pattern on the sound file is my only creative contribution. Otherwise, it was just hours upon hellishly tedious hours of tagging, regular expressions, and saving as. Okay, and I was the one who knew the university sysadmins and asked them for a few megabytes of space. Why? Because at the time, it was easier than not doing it. You have no idea.

The one thing I am proud of is the metadata. The author let it slip that they had no intention of honouring the agreement we'd made regarding payment for my services rendered. That's why audio(book) lacks any kind of byline, not in the text, nor the front matter, nor the cover, nor the meta-data. The image and the audio files are similarly attribution-free. At the time, I had a story ready about the myth of the author, but it never actually came up. I think they liked the aesthetics of the user side and never bothered to check the metadata.

I used my own hardware, so if you look really hard you'll find my name, but I made it so you did have to look really hard. A couple of times a year some hardcore nerd finds me and either writes me a fan note or threatens to expose me (or, more often, both at the same time), and I write a nice, sweet e-mail back explaining that they're wrong. And I can prove they're wrong, thanks to some e-mails I have squirrelled away, but I try not to publicise those. 

The actual author... let's just say we don't talk anymore. I know they badmouth me in private, but they don't do it in public because they can't prove they're the actual author of the files.

So there it is. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some linear narrative fiction I'd like to read.

Between illness and editing my novel, I haven't been writing any #fridayflash, but this one slipped out. Thanks to S.A. Barton for the inspiration!

who killed the blockbuster?

I wasn't going to blog about this, until I read the excellent post by Marc Nash about Terminator: Genisys, and the thoughtful critique by John Wiswell about the Jurassic franchise

First off: my favourite film critic of all time is Roger Ebert. I didn't always agree with his reviews, but I could usually tell from his assessment whether or not I was going to find the film worth watching. 

One thing that always perplexed me about Ebert's reviews is that he would sometimes say action sequences were "boring". If it's an action sequence, how could it be boring? I figured he had some well-deserved critic's fatigue, and wouldn't pay any notes about "boring action" much mind. 

But now I've seen Mad Max: Fury Road, and I know exactly what he meant. Practically the whole damn thing is a boring action sequence. 

No spoilers: the good guys are trying to escape from the bad guys. Okay. But there's no stakes, no suspense. Look at the characters. There's Max, who is the titular character, but not, one learns quickly, the hero. He's more like a Fifth Business, an enabler who throws in his lot with the hero because going her way is better than the alternatives. Still, he is  the titular character, so you know that, at worst, he'll die at the very end. That's if he dies at all. 

Then there's the hero, Imperator Furiosa. Even though she's nominally on the bad guy's side when she's introduced, we know she'll be a goodie once things get going. How do we know? Because her costume isn't nearly outlandish enough to be a baddie in this film, and because, unlike her War Boy colleagues/staff, she acts more or less according to current-day Western conventions. So she's not going to die until, maybe, the end as well.  

What about her goal of reaching The Green, the safe, unpolluted place she knows about? C'mon, it's a post-apocalyptic action film. Either The Green doesn't exist, or else despite all utopian appearances it's a horribly corrupt, oppressive place. So no stakes there either. 

The wives Furiosa is smuggling to The Green are virtually interchangeable. If they have names mentioned in the film, I didn't catch them. Mostly I kept them straight by hair colour, and correctly predicted (spoiler!) that one of the two blondes got killed off quickly. So she wouldn't get mixed up with the other one, you see. Meanwhile, the lone redhead was the only one with any real character arc, and stood out easily in compositions showing her with the other (identically dressed) wives on account of her hair colour.

The environmental stakes are devalued as well. Resources are supposed to be scarce, yet characters use up fuel and water like... like we are in the here and now and are supposed to be cutting down on.  A half-dozen characters give themselves a full-body shower, in the middle of the desert, after a giant sandstorm, using scarce, precious potable water for the job. Five minutes later they're worried they won't make it to The Green before the baddies catch up and re-capture them. Uh-huh.

Fiction requires a suspension of disbelief. A bored audience member will start noticing things like those showers, and then other things, and then still other things, until the weight of their boredom causes their disbelief to come crashing down to the ground. A story can be as fantastical and implausible as it likes, but it has to keep the audience interested. Otherwise, it's just a big long, boring, action sequence. 

Steven Spielberg warned in 2013 that just a few "tent pole" blockbusters failing in a single release season could cause a Hollywood "implosion". Marc, John, and I all went in to see our respective blockbusters expecting to be entertained at minimum, and came out with critiques and concerns. As I understand it, the three films we posted about were hardly failures at the box office, but I'm just not sensing the enthusiasm for them that past blockbusters have enjoyed.

The big Hollywood film that seems to be getting all the accolades this summer is Inside Out. I saw it the week before I saw Mad Max, and loved it, but now that I've seen both films, it's making me think. Inside Out has a lot of action for a film that literally takes place inside someone's brain, but somehow those homuncular cartoon characters had more at stake, and generated more suspense, than the live-action characters in Fury Road did. It feels like a shake-up is coming.

guest post: get off the couch

The couch is a magical, wonderful place to a modern human. Mine is a large sectional littered with pillows, embraced by shuttered windows that open on cooler days, closed off on one side by a pair of French doors into a peaceful sanctuary during Daddy's morning quiet time. The walls of this sanctuary slap you with tomato red (we call it The Red Room), and placed on the far wall, hanging at a slight angle, hovering above us on its throne, its altar, its pedestal, is a 70" Sony, leaning toward us in anticipation. Sony is a jealous god, demanding in worship, seductive with its many recorded shows and one-click movies. After Daddy's quiet time (which begins around 4AM, and ends around 8AM), Sony booms out its commandments, thou shalt buy this, thou shalt buy that, and thus and thus, lest thou misseth this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and be damned forever to the sulfury pit of higher prices. It tells us who we should hate, who we should love, where our beliefs in it and other gods should lie. It molds us into obedient citizens, or incites us to riotous disobedience. It demands thus and thus, and so on, pleading for our attention, insistent, threatening, irrefutable because it will not, cannot hear your pleas and complaints.

Sony booms and stomps through my house as a smaller demigod cradles my lap. Similar, yet different, this deity demands to be touched and tapped, seducing me with fingers not so jealous as Sony. Hewlett-Packard warms my legs with a fan. It stokes my ego with virtual discussions. It provides money for my home, such that I might tithe 10% to the gods of Sony, and to the priests and priestesses who serve it, with a smaller portion to this demigod for its seemingly lesser service.

This second god is humbler, yet no less demanding. While Sony cannot possess me, HP often bows me for hours at its altar, hunched over the keyboard as life — yes, LIFE — happens around me. My young son, sixteen months old, has learned that he need only close the lid to rouse me. So he walks over and presses the lid shut. Stop it, Finn, I say to him. He laughs. I huff, because I am in the middle of something important.

Ah. Something important. I look up. Sony booms at me that I must act now, before it is too late. Now for the news. Apparently I am supposed to hate so and so now, and am no longer allowed to hate so and so. Used to be the other way around. Oh Mr. Orwell, where are you now?

And what is so important anyway, that I cannot rise and play with my son? Well, I am working, and this clamshell contraption is the means by which I earn what, not money, oh no not that, but digital numbers on a banking website, gone before I have time to register the sum in my log book. But who's counting those numbers, and haven't I worked enough for one day? Should I, dare I, shall I disembark from the couch?

And so I do. I let Mr. Finn, Finny-Finny-Foo-Foo as I call him, close the lid. Little Finny-Foo-Foo, gonna make a poo poo, in my diaper, now I need a wiper. That's what I sing-song as I rise, and my wife, stressed because she works in his daycare, stressed because she makes dinner (I clean, so hush up), says, Why don't you take Finn outside to play?

Boy, he hears that and becomes a blur of chunky little bowlegs out those French doors, through the breakfast nook, through the second living area, me rising and loping after him through the playroom, and he's slapping his hands on the front door.

Get off the couch, Daddy. That's all he wants. And we explore the world outside as I did with my older children, teenagers now, both of them recalling sometimes that October swarm of frogs we witnessed, bagging seventeen of them and releasing them at the creek. They recall Ghost Tree, our hikes through the woods, our campouts, how we found a pair of owls and listened to them hoot back at one another. My older son says, Remember when I saved your life from that snake?

Yeah, I say. I just about stepped on a water moccasin, wearing flip-flops. One foot-width to the right, that close, inches, would have earned me a couple of holes in my heel, no doubt about it, right outside my apartment because it backed up to some woods with a winding creek leading out to a drainage dam.

They recall the trip to Colorado, Estes Park, and the week in the Stanley Hotel, home of Stephen King's The Shining. They recall other vacations, other hikes, other adventures, as does my wife, and as will my youngest, still scribing this first chapter of his life and running into the next grand adventure with his arms thrown up and his throat bleating baby chirps and giggles and words that mean something only to the parents and his siblings.

These things I know, and we write what we know, don't we? I know more than the couch. I know more than Sony and HP let on. I draw on this experience when I write, rousing characters who reach into my readers and touch places they forgot were there. I almost stepped on a snake, too, one says. I stayed at the Stanley, too, says another. And so on. We cross paths with our readers, and we cannot do that from the couch.

We must lift ourselves up, off the cushions, let life close the lid on HP and stuff the mouth of Sony with blackness. It only takes one click of the thumb to redeem yourself. Click. Rise. Live.

Then, when you brew your coffee, return to the couch, crack your fingers, and resurrect HP during that morning quietude you have carved out for yourself and those blank pages you fight and struggle with and beat your head against every morning, then you'll have something to write about.

You'll have stories.

Now, off with you.

Click.

About the Author

Eric W. Trant is a published author of several short stories and the novels Wink and Steps from WiDo Publishing, out now! See more of Eric's work at:

www.EricTrant.com

http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6939871.Eric_Trant

http://www.amazon.com/Eric-Trant/e/B00DU1O8T0

About Steps, Eric's latest book:

Steps is a well written science fiction novel you won’t want to put down. Following the Peacemaker family through their battle of survival will keep you on the edge of your seat as you wait to see what obstacle is next.

Society is falling to a ravaging virus, and the Peacemaker family is stranded in the mountains of Arkansas. Forced to band with a group of deserted soldiers, they battle to survive starvation, apocalyptic cataclysms, and a growing number of dangerously infected wanderers.
As their dwindling number struggles against ever-increasing odds, they realize they are not alone in the wilderness. A large creature is present in the hills, at first seen only as a fleeting shadow.

Now the family not only faces impending death from the unstoppable virus, they must also deal with the mysterious giant, whose footprints signify that he knows where they are.

Paperback: 218 Pages
Genre: Sci Fi
Publisher: WiDo Publishing (May 21, 2015)
ASIN: B00Y3A9AZE

Twitter hashtag: #StepsTrant
Steps  is available as an e-book and paperback at Amazon

the monomyth of objectivity

D. Paul Angel and Sonia Lal invited me to read up on mythology theory with them, and although it's been a frustrating trip (reading the book, not reading it with them in particular), I'm glad I did.

It's not too often I consider abandoning a book after the first sentence, especially if it's a book on mythology and story theory, but I wasn't quite expecting this:

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinae, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale; it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously[sic] constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

That's the start of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it was at that point that I had to remind myself it was written in 1949, although that only partially excuses it. Consider that the above quote appears under the main title of "The Monomyth." Isn't it a little weird to be actively othering people at the very moment you are stating a thesis that all of humanity's mythology boils down to a small set of super-stories?

I got the impression that this was an academic book written to be read by other academics, which in the America of 1949 would have meant white, Western, and male. It's easy to say that Campbell was simply writing for his intended audience, and for that audience, the notion that they could have anything in common with non-Westerners was radical. And yes, I concede the book was published only four years after the close of World War Two, when there was an immense amount of anti-Asian propaganda (and sanctions) to recover from.

But something nagged at me when I read the prologue, and continues to nag now that I've read Chapter One and am reading Chapter Two. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was also published in 1949. Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems was less than ten years away. Hitchcock's Rope, featuring a gay couple as the two main characters, was released in 1948. The idea that even Western culture was multi-faceted, albeit in a lopsided, one-aspect-dominating, sort of way was around. There's only so many times one can dismiss a different point of view as an aberration.

I've also found myself comparing The Hero with a Thousand Faces to CP Snow's The Two Cultures. Although Snow didn't publish his Two Cultures lecture in book form until 1959, he formulated the observations and ideas for it in the 1930s. Snow discusses the two cultures of science and the humanities as realms populated entirely by men, since that was (mostly) the reality of the university population at the time. The difference is that it doesn't matter. Snow's very thesis argues that the differences between the cultures of science and the humanities aren't bridgeable by more diverse demographics in either discipline, because they are endemic to the sub-cultures of the disciplines themselves. He argues scientists need to learn to respect the humanities, and the humanists better appreciate science. There may not be any non-white, non-male, non-Western people in the academic world Snow describes, but there is room for them.

I just don't see how there is room for other voices in the "monomyth" Campbell describes. Instead, it seems like he's appropriating from the other and claiming that really they're just like white, Western, male, (presumably straight) him. Abrahamic religions are accorded the distinction of being "higher mythologies" than pagan religions; Campbell even blithely announces that the goddess "is incarnate in every woman." The notion that the goddess may also be present in every man, or that the god may be present in every woman, is (as of halfway through Chapter 2) absent — curious when stories of gender-shifting entities appear in myths from all over the world, including the story of Tiresias from Greek mythology. Curiouser still given how many Greek myths Campbell has already used to illustrate his points even in these early parts of the book.

Instead, Campbell's monomyth theory is reminding me of two things. One is of nushu script from China, a form of writing only practised by women, from when women were barred from traditional education. How many stories were written down in nushu, or told between other peoples not allowed to express themselves through official channels, and which therefore never got considered by Western academics such as Campbell?

The other thing The Hero with a Thousand Faces reminds me of is a brilliant, and funny, essay written by Donna Haraway: "A Political Physiology of Dominance," which is included in her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. In it, she traces the history of our understanding of primate social structures, showing that many aspects of the way apes organise themselves were not discovered until women like Jane Goodall became primatologists. Before then, researchers were overly focused on proving human patriarchal society was both natural and normal. They were literally blind to all but a fraction of the actual primate power structure, because the remainder didn't serve their ends. Note: It wasn't that they were wrong about the part they observed; it's just that they assumed it was the whole, instead of a portion of the whole.

And, finally, that's my thing about Campbell's book. It's brilliant as far as it goes, but it only goes as far as 1949 Western academia. de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is now read in the context of having been written by a Frenchwoman in the 1940s — it's understood that while a lot of it still holds true, and a lot of it is important for an historical perspective on feminism, there are portions which are out-of-date, or have simply been proven wrong since. Howl is still a well-regarded poem, but it's important now to know it was written in the 1950s. Snow's two cultures are still visible throughout academia, but when reading his book, it is necessary to bear in mind he developed his ideas in the 1930s and chose his language for an academic lecture audience in the 1950s.

But Campbell's work seems to live on context-free, as if it's absolute truth, as if the Freudian theories it depends upon so heavily haven't been debunked or updated in the decades since. On the copy I got from my community library (third edition, New World Library, published 2008), there's a quote from George Lucas of Star Wars fame:

In the three decades since I discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it has continued to fascinate and inspire me. Joseph Campbell peers through centuries and shows us that we are all connected by a basic need to hear stories and understand ourselves. As a book, it is wonderful to read; as illumination into the human condition, it is a revelation.

That may well shine some light on the ongoing diversity problems in Hollywood films, but it doesn't say much for our critical understanding of mythology. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying Campbell doesn't deserve his accolades. What I am saying is we need to acknowledge that even he was constrained by the mores of his times. Better to declare the direction and flavour of one's subjectivity than to lie and claim objectivity when one has none.

So: that's the context in which I'm reading the book. Next blog post (when I get a chapter or two along) will look at what aspects of the book can be of use to fiction writers.

#fridayflash: customer experience

“I need to talk to a human,” Stiltskind demanded.

“Sir, prejudice against non-Earth androids is prohibited from public discourse under rule 239-B7. If you will not refrain from your prejudicial remarks, I shall be forced to call security.”

Stiltskind took a deep breath and loudly exhaled it as he walked away from the help kiosk. Two metres away, the nausea hit him again. He fell, rather than sat, on the nearest bench.

He put his head between his knees and sucked in more air. Things seemed a little better at knee level. It let him clear his head and think of how to try again.

The kiosk AI were programmed to placate irate customers, but not rude ones. Their encounter memory span was… Stiltskind blinked away the excess moisture from his eyes and concentrated on not scratching the backs of his hands. That would make the blisters worse.

Their encounter memory span was eight minutes. Right. He used to repair the damn things. It should be easier for him to remember. He closed his eyes and straightened up slowly. Circumstances could really mess with your head.

He rose and did his best to approach the help kiosk at the opposite end of the airport terminal at a casual pace, instead of the sprint he wanted to use. He jogged a few steps when the line of sight was blocked by a magazine stand.

“Excuse me,” he said, in a cheerful, slightly falsetto voice. “I was wondering if the environmental controls could be adjusted.”

“Temperature and humidity are normal,” replied the AI. This one was programmed to use a female-sounding voice. Good. The other one had annoyed him so quickly he’d almost punched it.

Stiltskind choked back vomit. “Ah, I’m sure, I’m sure,” he said, clearing his throat and wincing as stomach acid burned his throat. “But the, ah, air, quality, the air quality seems to be off. There’s that smell. Can’t you smell it?”

“We have had no other reports of smells.” Maybe he would have to punch this one.

“Yes, the, ah, the other passengers asked me to be their spokesperson. I used to repair kiosk AIs, you see. And the smell is very bad.”  He was going to say something more, but a coughing fit brought him to his knees. This time the nausea wouldn’t go away until he laid his head on the carpet. He watched crumbs and specks of dust flutter as he exhaled.

As soon as he thought he could hold himself up while leaning against the kiosk desk, he reached up with one hand and heaved his body into a semi-standing position.

“Oh, there you are,” said the AI. “I wanted to confirm — is the smell disturbing everyone, or just people with sensitivity to fragrances?”

Stiltskind glanced back at the terminal and the bodies littered across it. The ones who were moving at all were breathing shallowly.

“I’d say it’s everyone,” he said, before he lurched two steps to the right and bent over. This time he couldn’t hold back the vomit.

“Are you ill? Do you want me to call a medic in addition to the repair team?”

“That would be a good idea,” Stiltskind croaked.

“Please wait in the infirmary area,” the AI said. Stiltskind felt as though his brain were melting out of his ears, although he was fairly certain he’d be dead already if that were true. “It’s three and a half metres to the right,” it added. “I have unlocked the door for you.” Perhaps it was the effects of the fumes, but Stiltskind couldn’t help but think the AI sounded a little prim.

“Thanks,” he muttered thickly, and stumbled towards the door. He fell against the latch button, and managed to step inside and close the door behind him before any of the fumes followed.

The infirmary area was a small room separated from the main terminal with walls of frosted glass. It had three cots and a cupboard with medical supplies in it. Stiltskind had been in similar ones many times before. It was so rare for travelers to get ill these days, they were often used as break rooms by repair people.

The infirmary was designed to be sealed off from the rest of the terminal in case of infectious diseases. Certainly the air was much clearer inside than out. Stiltskind flopped onto the nearest cot and gulped in air. His face cracked into a half-hysterical laugh as he realised that if he’d arrived for his flight on time, he would have been affected like all the other biologicals in the terminal.

He sighed and pressed his back into the cot. Maybe it was an attack, or maybe it was just a major ventilation malfunction. Right now, he just wanted someone with some authority to deal with it.