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22 Mar 21:54

Samus Aran and sexism

The portrayal of female characters in video games has a checkered past—and present. Too often women are depicted as sex objects, without depth or agency. Even characters supposedly designed to avoid this problem tend to fall victim to it. For these and other reasons, the industry’s reputation for misogyny is well deserved. The spacefaring bounty hunter Samus Aran, from Nintendo’s Metroid series, is a unique case. Aside from her controversial appearance in 2010’s Metroid: Other M, she regularly is cited as a strong, engaging character who subverts the sexist norm. But is this true?

To determine whether Samus is a feminist landmark, it is necessary to examine her history, the culture that birthed her and the storylines in which she has appeared. In the mid-1980s, an idea came to the developers of the original Metroid, an action platformer for the NES. The game’s protagonist was a sexless space marine, totally obscured beneath a powered exoskeleton. “Hey, wouldn’t that be kind of cool,” one team member said, “if it turned out that this person inside the suit was a woman?” Particularly in the ’80s, video games rarely featured female characters in leading roles. The Metroid team played on the assumption that the protagonist would be male; and the result was Samus.

What began as an interesting subversion quickly developed into something more. Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991) and Super Metroid (1994) turned Samus into a real character. In Metroid II, she sets out to destroy the remnants of the lethal Metroid species—only to save the final hatchling, in a touchingly warped maternal moment. Her relationship with this hatchling grew, in tragic ways, with Super Metroid. Samus went through these events mostly in silence; but, when her speaking role was expanded in Metroid Fusion (2002), she was revealed to be an introspective and intelligent character. Yet, in each of these games, the player may unlock a win screen on which Samus appears without her armor, in skimpy clothing. An awkward disparity opens up in Samus’s portrayal.

Inexplicably, this hardened killer has a bikini body: scarless, thin, toned but not intimidatingly muscular. And the player views this body, sans the armor that makes it deadly, as a “reward”. Thus the player switches from sharing agency with Samus to viewing her as a passive object—from being her to watching her, as with Lara Croft in 2013’s Tomb Raider. Samus’s value as a person fades: instead there arises an adolescent male fixation on her sexual difference. Some might claim that Samus’s “reward” outfits are themselves expressions of confident agency. But these screens contradict her reserved personality; and their status as rewards gives them a gratuitous, voyeuristic hue.

Twelve years have passed since Fusion, and the first-person Metroid Prime trilogy (2002-2007) changed Samus in dramatic ways. In Prime, Samus largely became a Gordon Freeman character, a silent cipher for the player. The character-driven storytelling that Metroid had been building toward was replaced by environmental storytelling. Even the voyeuristic win screens were toned down. Other M's version of Samus, though, was talkative and emotional. To those unfamiliar with the trajectory of Metroid before Prime, this seemed like a betrayal of Samus’s character; but really it was a return to tradition.

This misunderstanding helped to create the popular belief that Other M was sexist. The stoic hero of Prime was transformed into a thoughtful character with a strong attachment to her superior officer, Adam. When Japanese games are localized in English, their male characters—like Squall from Final Fantasy VIII or Emil from Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World—are sometimes characterized as “weak”, “sissy” or “emo” by American critics. These characters, like Samus, have vulnerabilities and emotional lives: commonly gender-neutral traits for Japanese characters, which are stigmatized as “effeminate” in America.

To Americans, Samus in Other M appeared to be a cringing sycophant, who could not act without Adam’s—a man’s—approval. She kept her suit’s powers locked until Adam permissed otherwise, no matter how dire the circumstances. But the intricacies of Japanese class culture are often missed by Americans. Superiors, particularly in military scenarios, can receive an almost romantic devotion from their underlings—even and especially when both are men. In Japanese video games, one may find this relationship between characters like Brenner and Will from Advance Wars: Days of Ruin or Snake and The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The interactions between Samus and Adam originate not in misogyny but in a custom of respect.

Well-made characters are specific; not general. They have particular stories and particular personalities. Even when they fill archetypical roles, they are never interchangeable. One is forced to encounter them as people, rather than as stereotypes or as ideological tools. In the fourth episode of Bravest Warriors, the protagonists are listed jokingly (and only somewhat accurately) by type: “the cool one”, “the funny one” and “the girl”. A definitive archetype like “the funny one” can be the foundation for an interesting character, but a role as amorphous as “the girl”—or “the guy”, “the Asian” or similar—is problematic at best.

Creating a general character who “represents” a particular demographic, even with the intention of empowering that demographic, is a dangerous business. It hinges on the colonialist idea that one person can stand in for an entire group. Preferable are specific characters who, in their own particular way, happen to embody traits or to have experiences that are relatable to real individuals. Samus certainly is not the ideal “strong female character” that many feminists demand. But, better than that, she is a great character—one with her own complex, fascinating and particular story.

Indeed, Samus has never been a good poster child for feminist empowerment. For most of her history, she has had problems with objectification. And her story—with the Metroid hatchling, Adam and the rest—has long been too specific to give her ideological clout. However, to a feminism truly concerned with the representation of women, one interesting and particular character is more valuable than a million general (“the girl”) characters. Aside from her voyeuristic hiccups, Samus is revolutionary because she is a good character who happens to be a woman. If more video game writers had the nerve to follow this example, the industry’s misogyny would be a thing of the past.

Still Eating Oranges

31 Jan 17:33

http://bookelfe.livejournal.com/368865.html

While I was on last week's Yiddish literature binge, I was hugely delighted to discover that besides the Tevye stories, which I knew about, Sholem Aleichem had ALSO written a novel about ACTING TROUPES IN THE YIDDISH THEATER called Wandering Stars.

Wandering Stars begins in the tiny village of Holoneshti, where Reizel the fifteen-year-old cantor's daughter and Leibel the fourteen-year-old rich man's son get their first taste of theater when a wandering troupe comes through, and are IMMEDIATELY STARSTRUCK.

Sadly for Reizel and Leibel, both of them pretty soon end up grounded, which leads to a lot of extremely adolescent woe. There's one hilarious sequence in which Leibel imagines his own funeral in great detail. THEY'LL ALL BE SORRY THEN.

Anyway, these infants devise a genius plan to run away with the theater company! They're talented! They're in love! They're TOTALLY GROWN UPS! It'll be fine!

...and it sort of is, except for the part where the troupe accidentally gets separated because the director is running away from alimony issues with his three ex-wives, so Reizel and Leibel end up in completely different parts of the country.

So basically this is one of those books where the romantic leads get separated a third of the way through and spend the rest of the book wandering around various locations to find each other, helped and hindered along the way by various larger-than-life theater personalities, who are all attempting to make their own fortunes around these two talented kids.

The book follows Leibel more than Reizel, which is actually my biggest complaint because what we do see of Reizel's story is FASCINATING. She starts out as a cross-dressing vaudeville performer! She meets a famous opera singer who becomes her best friend and surrogate mother! IMPORTANT RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN WOMEN that alas we barely get to see. Then she has to deal with rising fame and increasing alienation from her roots and Jewish identity and a struggle to figure out whether her feelings for her violinist partner are actually love or just professional respect coupled with a violin fetish, all of which is also really interesting and barely on the page.

Meanwhile, Leibel grows up to be enormously talented as an actor, buuut also slowly becomes more and more of a self-centered dick. My sympathy for him took a huge hit when we hit the scene where he's confessing his woes to his director's naive sixteen-year-old sister, who has a giant crush on him. It's so great that he can tell her all about his long-lost love! She's just like a little sister to him! TOO BAD THAT LEIBEL GOT HIS DEFINITION OF 'SISTER' FROM JAIME LANNISTER.

However, I forgave Sholem Aleichem everything when we finally got to the end and Reizel and Leibel found each other at last after years of pining, and IT TURNS OUT THEY'VE GROWN INTO HUGELY DIFFERENT PEOPLE AND DON'T END UP TOGETHER AT ALL.

Reizel meets the poor pregnant sixteen-year-old kid that Leibel dumped to go pursue his Rosa Quest and is like "omg Leibel she's adorable! Her baby is adorable! MARRY HER IMMEDIATELY."

Meanwhile, Reizel's violinist fiance -- who seems like a pretty chill dude -- meets Leibel and they become best friends, and then Reizel ditches BOTH of them, and the last thing we see in the book is Reizel writing a mother to her opera singer fake mother all "welp I guess romance is just not for me, so I'm just going to have to continue my wandering life as an international music sensation!" I mean, it's bittersweet, because she still feels so disconnected, but as an ending for the female lead in a novel from 1910 it's actually ... pretty amazing ...

I'm going to conclude by saying my favorite write-up of this book that I've seen is from Goodreads: "as a former theatre kid, i can attest to the reality of the inevitability of incestuous romantic entanglements. this captures it perfectly, even made me a little nostalgic. im glad to know theatre people have been crazy for a while now." GREAT SUMMARY, ONE HUNDRED PERCENT ACCURATE.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from http://skygiants.dreamwidth.org/363880.html. Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
26 Feb 01:11

Fix Science In Half An Hour

by Scott Alexander

You’ve probably heard about the crisis of replication in psychology. The problem is that replication is an unglamorous business; researchers would much rather do the sexier work of pushing forward knowledge with new results.

So we need to make replications more glamorous.

I propose a reality TV show, Replication Lab!, where every week they try to replicate one of the most famous experiments from the past few years.

It starts with the host explaining the experiment, maybe an interview with a very distinguished elderly professor who talks about how confident he is that his results will hold up. The techs chat with each other as they construct the experimental setup about how they’re doing and how their date last night went and how they’re going to avoid the problems that confounded the original study.

Suspense builds as we see the participants come in. Some human interest stories. He agreed to participate because they offered $30, which he’s going to use to buy a present that will win back his estranged daughter’s love. She joined because she’s right on the border of failing her psych class and needs the extra credit to save her dream of becoming the first person in her family to graduate college.

The experiment itself. The suspense is unbearable. We get a running commentary as everything proceeds. Oh man, look how harsh that guy is being on his Milgram Obedience Experiment, can you believe he would do that? That girl in the control condition seems to be running through her Stroop task at lightning speed – how do you think that’s going to affect our results, kindly-looking bearded scientist attached to the show?

After a tension-building commercial break, we get the results. Everyone is huddled around a computer as the statistician makes the final mouse click, and…oh no, p = .30! Total failure to replicate!

The scene cuts to the distinguished elderly professor’s face as he sees his great discovery going down the toilet. “How do you feel right now?” asks the host, and the professor sputters “I…I’m sure time will vindicate me! I know it!” and then he runs off the set, crying. Our host turns to the kindly-looking bearded scientist attached to the show. “Tell me the truth,” she says “Do you think Dr. Zuckerman’s career is ruined?” “I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be,” says the bearded scientist, shaking his head sadly.

I feel like Mythbusters has probably pretty much exhausted our cultural stock of urban legends by now and could be profitably recruited for this project. I would also accept “Welcome to Replication Lab! With your host, John Ioannidis!”

17 Feb 23:19

"I couldn’t believe that’s how we treat human beings." Witnessing Omar Khadr

by transcriber
Body: 

"And sitting on a bed that had no blankets, because they’re taken away during the day, in this cold cell sat a very young boy, and that boy was chained to the floor and handcuffed. And in all the many years that I’ve gone to Guantanamo Bay, as I’ve sat facing that young boy and watched him grow up into manhood, I never, ever saw him walk, other than going into the so-called trial. He was always, always shackled to the floor."

Omar Khadr's lawyer Dennis Edney spoke at a Lawyers Rights Watch event in Vancouver in December (The Omar Khadr Case: A Reality Check), and excerpts were recently aired on Canadian Redeye Coop radio. Podcast here, and transcript below the fold.

(P.S. Happy Presidents Day - aka "the asshole in charge of shredding our Constitution," h/t Marcy Wheeler.)

15 Feb 23:57

http://bookelfe.livejournal.com/370250.html

For a while now I've been meaning to post about Spec 2, which is a ten-episode Japanese cops-investigate-supernatural-conspiracy show. (There is also a Spec 1, but it's only tangentially related? Or maybe Spec 2 is a remake? I'm not actually sure but it's not necessary to see it beforehand, anyway. At least, I hope it wasn't necessary, because I didn't.)

Anyway there is one overpowering reason that everyone should watch Spec 2 and that is TOMA AND HER FACE.







In the depressingly small fictional repertoire of female weirdo genius asshole detectives, Toma is the greatest I have yet encountered BY FAR.



Toma loves making people uncomfortable. BECAUSE SHE'S A JERK. *___*





TOMA WILL NEVER STOP TALKING ABOUT SYRINGES AND POTASSIUM.

This is a beautiful set of images I like to call 'Toma trolls murderers for the lulz.'







CREEPILY SNIFFING A SUSPECT, BECAUSE SHE CAN:



Only one thing makes Toma happier than being an asshole to murderers, and that is encountering the supernatural. Toma, faced with potentially demonic possession:





Toma of course has a partner and straight man, a cop named Sebumi who has a giant stick up his ass about being demoted down to her weirdo unit.



Except Sebumi is actually secretly a HUGE DRAMA KING who likes climbing onto whatever's tallest and making speeches from on high, so.



Also, why is he always carrying around this brown paper bag? NO ONE KNOWS.



A CLASSY AND DIGNIFIED GENTLEMAN.





(He's .... trying to open a door. Guess who gets it open?)



SEBUMI HATES HER SO MUCH. (Well, okay, he loves her. A little. Eventually.)

Toma has a nemesis named Ninomae.



Except he's, like, fourteen, which makes him kind of like the murderous Greg Pikitis to her Leslie Knope.





Toma also has a loser ex-boyfriend who won't leave her alone. He steals her dumplings, so obviously he's terrible.



"I'll call you!"
"DON'T."

Sebumi and Toma's boss, who is mostly useless:



Mirei, the other main female character, whose brother got shot in Sebumi's tragic backstory incident. I love her because she spends the entire show giving everybody death glares.



That's the main cast, but every episode introduces at least one extremely bizarre new character. Some of my favorites include: Reisen, a psychic who sees the future by biting lemons and reciting magical girl chants!



Poor Reisen eventually ends up kidnapped by Special Forces and forced to play Nintendo all day.



The extremely helpful backup cops!



Satori, a really genki evil telepath!



A priest who's famous on Twitter!



THE FIVE MEMBERS OF JAPANESE BOYBAND EXILE WHO EXERCISE THEIR SUPERNATURAL POWERS VIA SYNCHRONIZED DANCE MOVIES







Sorry, Sebumi. THAT'S JUST THE SHOW YOU'RE IN.

...uh, though for all of Spec's amazing bizarreness and frequent hilarity, I feel I also need to warn for graphic violence, suicide, stalking, a super creepy arc involving brainwashing via mind powers, and the fact that the actual plot makes INCREASINGLY LESS SENSE as it goes along.

And also for the fact that at one point in the first episode Toma spits out a line about only using ten percent of your brain and tries to make it central to the mytharc. WHY, TOMA. DID YOU HAVE TO. ;___;

Oh, well, Toma's face is worth it. SO WORTH IT.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from http://skygiants.dreamwidth.org/365414.html. Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
28 Jan 17:30

LARGE x RARE == DIFFERENT: Why scaling companies is harder than it looks

by Jason

cartoon6497

Something interesting happens when you run more than 1,000 servers, as we do at WP Engine.

Suppose I told you that on average our servers experience one fatal failure every three years. The kernel panics (the Linux equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death), or both the main and redundant power supply fails, or some other rare event that causes outage. Does that sound like a bad batting average?

Think about the laptops and desktops you’ve owned. Some last longer than others, but it’s probably something like 2-4 years before the OS locks up or a battery can’t hold a charge anymore. Now consider your laptop is idle the vast majority of the time, whereas our servers are getting pounded multiple times per second, 24/7. Even in the wee hours of American timezones when our pan-company traffic dips to its nadir, we’re running malware scanners, off-site backups, and other maintenance.

So, even if our servers are more hardy than your MacBook Pro, they’re taking 100x the beating, so one failure every three years seems pretty reasonable.

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.
–Haiku from FSF

But remember, we have 1,000 servers. Three years is about 1,000 days. So that means, on average, every single day we have a fatal server error.

Not to mention 10 minor incidents with degraded performance, or a DDoS attack somewhere in the data center affecting our network traffic, or some other thing that sets pagers a-buzzing in our Tech Ops team and mobilizes our Customer Support team to notify and help customers.

“Well sure,” you say, “that’s normal as you grow. If you had just 10 servers and 100 customers, you’d have much fewer problems and many fewer employees. Today you have more customers, more servers, and more employees. What’s so hard about that?”

The insight is that that scale causes rare events to become regular. Things happen with 1000 servers that you literally never once saw with 50 servers, and things which used to happen once in a blue moon, where a shrug and a manual reboot every six months was in fact an appropriate “process,” now happen every week, or even every day.

Things as rare as, well, you know…

cartoon6064

Also, it’s not just problems that morph with scale, but your ability to handle problems morphs too.

For example, a dozen minor and major events every day means 20-50 customers affected every day. Now consider what happens as we try to inform 50 customers. For some we won’t have current email addresses, so they don’t get notified. Some of those will notice the problem and create extra customer support load at minimum, but at worst they’ll post on Twitter about how their website was slow today and WP Engine didn’t even know it. Then our social media team has to piece all this together, attempt to respond, maybe put together a special phone call with that customer, etc..

Or, consider the scale-ramifications of on-boarding 1,000 new customers a month. In that case, it’s likely that any given server issue can affect a customer who has only been with us for 30-60 days. Thus the issue causes a “bad first impression,” which is harder to address than a customer who has been with us for three years and therefore has built up a “bank account of patience.”

All of these aspects of the “solution” side of the process is affected by the same rule of rare events happening regularly, and causing much more work to solve than when the company was small.

The usual response to this is “automate everything.”

As with most knee-jerk responses, there’s truth in it, but it’s not the whole story.

Sure, without automated monitoring we’d be blind, and without automated problem-solving we’d be overwhelmed. So yes, “automate everything.”

But some things you can’t automate. You can’t “automate” a knowledgable, friendly customer support team. You can’t “automate” responding to a complaint on social media, which as our Twitter meister Austin Gunter says is usually a customer’s last resort and thus should always be treated as the very legitimate issue that it is. You can’t “automate” the recruiting, training, rapport, culture, and downright caring of teams of human beings who are awake 24/7/365, with skills ranging from multi-tasking on support chat to communicating clearly and professionally over the phone to logging into servers and identifying and fixing issues as fast as (humanly?) possible.

And you can’t “automate” away the rare things, even the technical ones. By their nature they’re difficult to define, hence difficult to monitor, and difficult to repair without the forensic skills of a human engineer.

Does this mean all our customers have a worse experience? No, just the opposite. Any one customer of ours has fewer problems per month today than a year ago, because we’re constantly improving our processes, automation, hardware, human service, etc.. It’s when you look across the entire company, and the non-linear additional effort it takes to not just improve the average experience, but to manage the worst-case experience, that you appreciate the difficulties.

Does that give high-scale companies like WP Engine an excuse to have problems? No way! In fact, if we’re not constantly improving on all fronts, the scale itself will catch up and overtake us, so we have to adhere to the laws of automation and diligence even more than smaller, slow-growing ones.

But for those of you in the earlier stages of your companies, when you project 5x growth coupled to just 5x the costs (or only 3x the costs because you’ll get cost-savings at scale), you’re guessing low. When you show 5x growth in projections but don’t budget for new hires in areas like security, technical automation, specialized customer service areas, and managers and executives who have trod this path before and come battle-hardened with play-books on how to tackle all this, you’re heading for an ugly surprise.

And with high growth, the surprise appears quickly, and recovery means acting twice as fast again to claw back ahead of the effect.

 


21 Feb 01:01

Another very Japanese phone booth

by Muza-chan

I was writing some time ago about a Japanese phone booth located inside the Sumiyoshi Taisha from Osaka, with a roof design perfectly harmonized with the shrine’s architecture.

Recently, I discovered another such phone booth, which reproduces the design of the nearby Marugame Castle, one of the 12 still original Japanese castles…

Click on photo for higher resolution:

EXIF Info:

Nikon Df
Lens: 24-70mm F/2.8G
Focal Length: 27mm
Aperture: F/5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/1000s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 250
Kyoto style litter protection, miniature torii
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

Kyoto style litter protection, miniature torii

28 Jan 04:11

A totally legit self-propelled wheelchair from 1811, and I can’t use it in my novel.

by Mary Robinette Kowal

mechanical chair It is one of the great tragedies of my life that I cannot include this TOTALLY LEGIT steam-powered wheelchair from 1811 in my novels, because it will look steampunk. Even though it is a real thing — or at least was proposed as a real thing and published in Ackerman’s, it is so out of keeping with what people imagine the Regency era to be like, that there’s no way to include it without it appearing to be an invention of mine.

Sure, I could expend energy and wordcount to making people believe that it fits into the story, but they will never, ever, believe that I didn’t make it up. Since I’m not writing steampunk with the Glamourist Histories, it will make the books feel like something that they aren’t. If the plot in Of Noble Family  turned upon it, that might be worth it. Since it doesn’t, I just have to sigh over the chair.

Also… the fact that this was invented by a guy named Merlin?

No. Way. No way could I ever get anyone to buy into it as a real historical thing. The reason people say, “You can’t make this stuff up” is that you can, but no one will believe you.

But oooooh…. Isn’t it cool?

The post A totally legit self-propelled wheelchair from 1811, and I can’t use it in my novel. appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

05 Jan 01:56

Mycenaean Floors

raettawy shared with me this insightful article on the unusual floor patterns at the Palace of Nestor, Pylos, and on Mycenaean floors in general.

Mycenaean rulers often had the floors in their megarons (and perhaps elsewhere) painted to represent stone or carpet.  The megaron of Pylos incorporates patterns of both stone and carpet.  Ancient patchwork shows that repairs had been carried out sometime before the destruction and abandonment of the palace around 1200 B.C.  To create the colored, patterned squares, the artists used a grid system of pigment and snapped string like that used on tomb walls in Egypt.

nestor
view.asp
While familiar with the Piet de Jong exaggerated reconstruction of the Pylos megaron (above, first image), I can't remember the last time I'd seen the eagle's-eye view of the floor--though I know I have seen it before.  I certainly hadn't considered how the squares affected how court officials and visitors to Nestor's palace in Mycenaean times would have negotiated the space.  People would have followed the white squares around the central hearth, a bit like moving around a game board.

As to the skewing of the grid's lines, I refer you to the original article.  The author does a far better job explaining the function of the skewing than I can.
26 Aug 11:55

Minoan Board Games

A Minoan game board, found in a corridor in Knossos in 1901:

Minoan chessboard
Sir Arthur Evans referred to it as the "Royal Draughtboard," in keeping with his habit of referring to his discoveries at the Palace of Minos as "royal."  You can read about the discovery of this unique gaming board and how the game might have been played here.

From other archaeological and pictorial evidence, pavement games were popular in Minoan Crete.  The Theatral Area at Knossos, for example, features marks in the pavement of the stands where people could play while waiting for a performance or religious rite, or whatever activity was carried out in that area, to begin.
02 Jan 10:31

Kitchener on our coins? That icon may not mean what they think it means…

by Juliet

As the centenary year of The Great War opens, I see outrage on Twitter and Facebook at the choice of Lord Kitchener’s in/famous recruiting poster for the UK £2 coins to be minted in this year. Don’t people know what atrocities he was responsible for, the objectors cry, throughout his long military career?

Well, since it’s quite likely that a good few folk don’t know Kitchener’s full story, I’m all in favour of them being better informed, if that can be achieved without descending into pointless arguments. The thing is though, as I look at this image, I wonder how my sons will see it, not least since they’re now both of an age which would have seen them shipped off to the trenches a hundred years ago, to do and die and never question why their elders and betters had ordered it.

But that was then and this is now. My sons have grown up reading Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett, and seeing the stage production of Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, and War Horse at the cinema. They’ve laughed through the DVDs of Blackadder Goes Forth and shivered at the intensity of that final scene. They watched Daniel Radcliffe going well beyond Harry Potter in the TV drama My Boy Jack. They’ve been on school trips to the Flanders cemeteries where they were all individually given the personal history behind a stark white tombstone and stood at the Menin Gate at sunset. Causes and Consequences of The First World War has been a staple of their school History curriculum. They’ve studied the War Poets in English Literature. Since we live in Oxfordshire, they see local traffic halted and diverted as hearses bringing dead soldiers home from Afghanistan go by.

What does Kitchener on a coin mean to them? A symbol of a bygone age when the deference ingrained in a class-ridden society saw men slaughtered by the thousand for the sake of a war they’d had no say in? A warning of the dangers of unthinking acceptance of ‘patriotic’ propaganda, most especially spouted by politicians wrapping themselves in the flag, while staying safely distant from bullets and shells? A reminder to look carefully for the self-interest or outdated thinking behind the words and motives of those who will be soliciting their votes in 2015’s general election?

You know, I don’t think I have a problem with them carrying that in a pocketful of change.

18 Dec 01:01

Midtown Christmas Starlight Garden, travel tip

by Muza-chan

Surprisingly for the Western visitor, Japan has actually two winter illuminations: some of them are used just for Christmas, being lit only until December 25, while others are designed especially for the New Year…

Until now, I spent two New Year’s celebrations in Japan, but this is my first Christmas here so I was anxiously waiting to see some of the renowned Christmas illuminations…
My first choice was the Midtown Christmas Starlight Garden, in Tokyo: over 28 million LED lights representing the birth of the universe, a dizzying show that left me breathless!

Travel tip: The Midtown Christmas Starlight Garden lights are on until December 25, 2013, between 5PM and 11PM.

Click on photo for higher resolution:

EXIF Info:

Nikon D700
Lens: 14mm F/2.8G
Focal Length: 14mm
Aperture: F/4
Shutter Speed: 1/60s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 4000
KFC Colonel Sanders Santa
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

KFC Colonel Sanders Santa

12 Dec 01:53

http://bookelfe.livejournal.com/358542.html

For December 11th, [personal profile] enleve asked me about my favorite birthday celebrations and activities. I am actually not much of a birthday-er! (For me. Other people's birthdays are great, and should absolutely be celebrated with pomp and circumstance, although I am epically bad about remembering them and apologize in advance to everyone whose birthdays I will forget over the next year.)

I mean, I have no negative feelings tied up in birthdays -- growing older is great! I am super looking forward to being old and having giant bushy white eyebrows like Merriman Lyon's, it is a dream of mine -- and it is absolutely lovely when people remember my birthday and take the time to wish me a happy one, but I never particularly think to plan anything really dramatic for it. I never throw parties; throwing a party seems to me like the worst and most stressful way to spend any day! You worry about who to invite, and then you worry about whether people will come, and then once they're there you spend the whole time worrying if everyone is having a good time. I hate being the one who has to be responsible for everyone having a good time! It is hard enough to be responsible for myself having a good time.

The past few years [personal profile] genarti has usually come down to visit over the nearest convenient weekend to my birthday, and we have done such exciting things as visit museums and liveblog anime and all the generally delightful sorts of things we usually do when Gen comes to visit, which is pretty much every couple months. So that's like having a birthday every couple months, I suppose! And sometimes I will go out for dinner with roommates or drinks with my grad school cohort on the actual day of my birthday - usually someone else besides me makes that decision, but, I mean, it's a great decision! just making that decision myself feels too much like planning a party and making a fuss - and sometimes, like this past year, I will spend it running around doing twelve other things and not remember it's my birthday until one of my parents calls me.

I will tell you one great birthday though, was the birthday last year when I went up to Boston to see the ballet and a bunch of amazing people surprised me with a Kindle. That is one of the best things that's ever happened to me -- not because of the Kindle itself so much (although the Kindle is GREAT) but because, like, wow, people thought to do something like that for me! WHAT. HOW. How do I know such great people, how is it that such great people think I'm worth the time to plan something like that, how is that even possible!

Oh, also another thing I love doing on my birthday is singing "remember, remember the fifth of November, GUNPOWDER, TREASON AND PLOT!!!" Also before my birthday. As many times leading up to my birthday as possible. Because I feel, personally, that if you happen to be born on a blood-and-thunder holiday with its OWN SONG, you have a real responsibility to embrace that.

One thing I would love to do on a future birthday would be to spend it in the UK and see the Guy Fawkes Day fireworks and CLAIM THEM AS MY OWN.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from http://skygiants.dreamwidth.org/354133.html. Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
25 Nov 13:20

The Day of the Doctor

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t particularly excited for “The Day of the Doctor.” I wasn’t excited about having Ten and Rose back without any of the other companions, and I wasn’t excited about the “War Doctor” and the fact that telling a story with him pretty much meant that it was going to be a Time War story – the Time War being a thing I’ve never been especially interested in, because it’s a part of the tragic weight that made less and less sense as Russell Who progressed. And particularly at a point when one wants to celebrate the show as a whole, all fifty years of it, I didn’t like the idea of fixating on this – well, this tear in the fabric of the conceit of the show, the thing that got the “Lonely God” ball rolling, the thing that Moffat had seemed to be dancing so hard to work around and partially repair: giving the lonely Doctor a family and even a wife; having Oswin erase the memory of the Doctor from the Daleks, so that he was no longer the Predator or the Oncoming Storm. Why take us back to all that?

The answer, of course, is to fix it. (And here’s where I don’t think big enough, because I never thought he’d do it.) He took the ultimate cry of nullity – no more – and turned it into presence: well played, sir. And in retrospect, Moffat has been playing a long game (or at least he's very good at looking like he has been): time can be rewritten; if something can be remembered, it can come back. All the way back to season 5: we’ve been watching these smaller rewritings in preparation for the big one, for the possibility of the return of Gallifrey. And of course it’s Eleven who changes his mind, because it’s Eleven who really believes in that possibility of time travel (“Time mends us. It can mend anything”); because he’s the madman, the trickster, rather than the Lonely God, and he cheats death rather than shouldering its burden; because those extra four hundred years have kept the calculations going and given him the possibility of grace. And because – unlike the War Doctor, who takes the Moment so far out into the desert that even the TARDIS can’t see him; unlike Ten who is at this point traveling on his own – Eleven brings Clara along, and she serves as witness (and as conscience, the way the Moment does). Here’s another rewriting: “I think sometimes you need someone to stop you.” I’d say that more precisely, in Moffat Who, it’s “sometimes you need someone to remind you.” In Moffat Who, the companion doesn’t pull the Doctor back after he’s already done the terrible thing; the companion stops him by reminding him of who he is, and that there’s always another way. Which is another aspect of the long game, all the way back to “The Beast Below” – it’s practically the same setup: kill a starwhale to save thousands; kill a planet to save the universe. And it’s the memory of children that stops it, both times; and both times it’s the companion seeing the third option that the Doctor, maker of hard choices, cannot see. Both times the Doctor is ready to throw away his name as punishment for his crime, and both times the companion says – no. Be a doctor. This is who you are. Which is another reason that it makes sense that it’s Eleven who changes his mind: he’s had four hundred years to grow reaccustomed to hope.

So that’s the meta-angle, all the What It Means for the overarching mythology of the show – but what about the episode as an episode? I thought it was very tightly plotted, especially considering that it was basically two episodes in one (Zygon invasion and Time War story). The guest cast was quite strong, and while I’m never going to be pleased about the whole Queen Elizabeth thing, I did like her cleverness in turning the Zygons’ plan against them by pretending to be one of them. I liked Osgood and her scarf (I had to have this pointed out to me, because I’d already slotted the scarf into the category of “in-joke” well before the end of the episode came around, but I suppose she actually got the scarf from the Doctor, without knowing it?) And Kate Stewart was a treat to see again. In Doctor news, Eleven being all judgey of Ten warmed the cockles of my little heart. (How had I forgotten how annoying Ten could be? I mean, I know “rude and not ginger” is his thing and all, but ugh, it does not make him fun to be around sometimes. And so grandstandy, my word: so quick to pass judgment on Eleven for “forgetting” – which Eleven never actually said, by the way – as though figuring out a way to live with your pain is a terrible thing; as though four hundred years later he should still be mired in grief and guilt and unable even to see past them. Making your pain a virtue – that’s Ten’s thing, not Eleven’s, and I can understand that Ten thinks that moving on is the same thing as forgetting – he’s still too close to it all, and punishing himself for things rather than grieving for them is part of Ten’s modus operandi – but I’m so glad not to still be watching that show.) Seeing the two Doctors together really brought it home to me: sorry Ten, but Eleven is my beloved space idiot; you just can’t compete. (This is honestly no reflection on David Tennant, whom you know I love, and who was perfectly Ten in this episode. It’s not his fault that I fell out of love with the character as the seasons went on.) (Also, Matt fairly broke my heart in the smallest of moments: that little hesitation before stretching his hand out fully to cover the “big red button,” that reticence he often has before touching another person in a fraught moment; the little-boy sadness and compassion in his face when he says “You don’t have to do it alone”; the way he offers himself up meekly, even pleadingly, to Clara’s tearful critique, no bluster at all in his “And who am I?”) (Jenna did a lovely job in that scene, too: I find Clara a little frustrating, because Jenna absolutely sells me on how much Clara cares about the Doctor, but I don’t feel like I’ve really been shown why. But her heartbreak for “her” Doctor was very touching.)

I thought Billie Piper – whom I really hadn’t wanted to see back, through no fault of her own, just not wanting to see Ten and Rose again when I’ve long thought they brought out the worst in each other – was wonderful as the Moment, a bit bonkers and a lot kind, full of gravity and humor and fondness. (Her face at “Same software, different face”! She’s so pleased! And it’s just what the War Doctor needs at that moment, when he declares that he doesn’t know either of the two men before him: to be reminded that the surface might have changed, but not the essentials.) And I quite liked the concept of a weapon with a conscience, one who grows to care about the Doctor. (Yeah, I got a lump in my throat at the bit about the TARDIS noise bringing hope to anyone who hears it – and I loved that the Moment stayed the War Doctor’s hand for just a bit, so that he could hear it for himself.) The episode looked lovely as well, full of expansive location shots, but there was still lots of room for quiet, meaningful conversations between various characters. (I loved the move from the violence of the Time War to the “violence” of a sugar cube splashing into a cup of tea – lovely shot, and a perfect summary of how this show operates.) And I don’t even know what to say about the ending except eeeeeeeee.
09 Dec 19:34

Happy Birthday, Admiral Grace Hopper!

by lambert
Body: 

Here she is on David Letterman:

14 Nov 12:51

http://bookelfe.livejournal.com/353558.html

So you guys remember when I read that book about telegraphy and became really indignant that the world had not provided me with heaps and heaps of telegraph romance!

It turns out there is at least one: Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes, which I would venture to say is probably the most adorable rom-com to be written in 1879.

Wired Love begins with a classic meet-cute, when young telegraph operator (with big dreams!) Nattie accidentally screws up a message she receives from somebody a few stations further down the telegraph line. Pretty soon Nattie and "C" are basically spending all their time at work texting "You're adorable!" "No, YOU'RE adorable!" at each other in Morse Code.

(Of course, since there is no privacy on a telegraph line, every other irritated telegrapher on the stations in between is just like GET OFF THE LINE AND GET A ROOM, UGH. Nattie and C are indeed adorable; nonetheless, I sympathize deeply with all these other telegraphers.)

Besides Nattie and C, there is also a cast of other characters, including:

- Cyn, Nattie's aspiring opera singer BFF, who is WONDERFUL IN ALL WAYS and whom Nattie loves and is also jealous of in the way that you're always jealous of your friends who are achieving awesome things while you feel like you're stuck in place

(Sidenote: a significant theme of this book is about women being ambitious and wanting to achieve awesome things! Not bad for 1879)

- Jo, the Bohemian next door, who buzz-cuts his hair in order not to look like a Romantic poet

- Quimby, hopelessly in love with Nattie and as clumsy as a modern YA heroine, who probably belongs in a Wodehouse novel rather than this book. Sorry, Quimby!

- That Troll At the Telegraph Station Down the Line

Rom-com hijinks rapidly ensue, including several cases of mistaken identity and Big Misunderstandings, but everything turns out all right in the end (well, for everyone except poor Quimby.) There are also several great scenes of people talking secretly together at big parties by tapping out Morse Code with their fingers, and what I believe may be officially the first insinuation of phone sex ever to appear in fiction:

"That any young woman should be so immodest as to establish telegraphic communication between her bed-room and the bed-room of two young men is beyond my comprehension!"

This, from the prim and scandalized landlady, after discovering a ~secret telegraph station~ in Nattie's bedroom. CONGRATS, MISS KLING, you just invented a new genre of porn!

(However, as charming as this book is, it is still not a lesbian telegraph romance, so the field is WIDE OPEN, cough [personal profile] innerbrat cough)

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from http://skygiants.dreamwidth.org/349259.html. Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
17 Sep 16:10

Mary’s tricks for writing fiction for audio

by Mary Robinette Kowal

During recent conversations, I’ve become aware of three things.

  1. When I say that I think about writing for audio, people imagine radioplays.
  2. The way I think about writing has been influenced by also being an audiobook narrator.
  3. Some of the writing for audio stuff would actually be useful for other writers.

So… here we have a giant expository post about audio and fiction.

One of the things that being an audiobook narrator has done for me is make me really remember that writing developed to convey the spoken word. I talk about this when I’m teaching how to read aloud, but also when I’m teaching writing. Punctuation, for instance, often represents breath and delineates the natural pauses in speech. You become painfully aware of this when you hit a sentence that you just cannot parse because it’s missing a comma.

You remember this joke, right?

  • Let’s eat Grandma!
  • Let’s eat, Grandma!

Punctuation saves lives.

When you say those aloud, you read them differently and the punctuation records that difference. There’s that old saw that action scenes should have short choppy sentences.  I think that’s because the periods represent breaths coming faster, the way it actually would in an action scene. Conversely, stripping the punctuation will lead to something that sounds breathless. So, now I use punctuation and sentence structure deliberately, even in narration, to give a subtle clue about the tone of a scene.

Most of the the audio tricks are not structural, but are in the small details that will make it easier for the narrator, and more importantly, easier for my listening audience to follow.  Some of these tricks are things that might be useful for other writers, or — to be more accurate — these are things I wish other writers would think about before I have to narrate their lovely book.

So… here’s what I’m thinking about when I’m writing a story that I know is destined for audio. And to be honest? Most fiction these days stands a good chance of having an audio production so I think about it most of the time. And just the standard caveat — these are guidelines. I’ll break any of them if that’s what serves the story, but I also weigh the cost of doing so.

Mary’s Tricks for Writing fiction for audio

I tend to signpost the start of  a new scene a little more. In print, we can use design elements to indicate that a new scene is beginning. You know the standard # as a scene break, or the double linebreak? Those are all visual ways of distinguishing that there’s been a break and we’re in a new scene. In audiobooks, you have to do that entirely with the words and your interpretation of them. Why not use music as my design element? Because that slows the momentum of the story. The biggest benefit of thinking about this is that, even in print, it makes it easier for a reader to orient themselves when we start a new scene.

I try to keep my cast of characters in a given scene small and of disparate type.  It’s hard on a listener to distinguish between a lot of different voices, even if the narrator is Mel Blanc. Just listen to Writing Excuses, even with four different people, the guys sometimes bled together. When I’m teaching people how to give an effective reading, I tell them to look at their selection and make sure it’s something suitable for being read aloud. Not all fiction works well in audio. The side effect of this for print is that I’m more likely to write a diverse cast, instead of having ten white men of the same age in a room — and seriously, I had to narrate that once. It gives me more distinct characters.

I lean towards first person.  When I write for Audible, where my primary audience is going to be listening, I step away from third person, which is my usual go-to POV. This is mostly a personal preference, but I feel like if you have someone talking to you, that person will be who you relate to. I might as well take advantage of that and go first person to create the illusion of a more personal connection. There’s nothing wrong with audiobooks in third person, but I suspect the rise of audiobooks are one  of the reasons that the first person narratives is coming so strongly back into fashion.

I try to be very, very conscious of the presentation of information. The listener can’t back up to re-read. They also can’t skim in audio. So I need to be really sure that the information is coming in the order necessary to understand the story. Again, in print, this gives me a cleaner narrative.

I avoid parentheticals. Seriously… those look good on the page, but when you are trying (this is really just a problem with audio, although even on the page it can create confusion sometimes) to connect the end of a sentence to a beginning that the reader has forgotten (they always forget) it can get complicated to make understandable and (go ahead and try to read this aloud (also ask me in a bar about the two-page nested parenthetical I had to read)) you’ll see what I mean.

I skip any dialog tag I can.  Truly, I do this for things intended for print too, and that’s just a stylistic choice. I only include if I feel like there might be some ambiguity about who is speaking. On the page, I can rely on paragraph breaks to help delineate who is speaking. You don’t get that visual cue in audio, but most narrators do at least some vocal distinctions between characters, which serves the same function.   Where it differs is that in print you skim the “he said” “she said” but in audio you hear every single redundant one of them.

I avoid homophones. Take the word “moue” for example. It’s a lovely word on the page and describes a flirtatious pout. But there is no way to read, “She gave a small moue in reply” as anything other than, “She gave a small moo in reply.” Believe me. I’ve tried.

My favorite example of homophone fail is a friends’s story about Lewis and Clark’s expedition, in which they brought along their dog Seaman. He read it aloud for the first time in front of a live audience.  The story had the line, “Then, Seaman erupted from the bush.” I leave you to imagine the consequences of that…

But besides keeping in mind things that audio fiction does well and things that it does poorly, it works pretty much the same as print fiction.

Radio plays on the other hand are completely, totally, wildly different creatures. I’ve written a couple when I was working with Willamette Radio Workshop and besides the formatting, the way language is used is totally different.  Since you are probably mostly interested in writing fiction, I’m going to demonstrate the difference — Show, don’t tell — rather than attempting to teach you to write for radio.

Way back before Shades of Milk and Honey was a novel, it was a radio play.  I was working on a serial before realizing that a radio play about a visually based magic was not the best plan. When we sold the novel Shades of Milk and Honey,  while included the audiobook rights but I asked my agent to make certain that we held onto all the dramatic rights because I had the idea that someday I’d still like to do the radio version. However… visual magic.

Still, it’s useful in this context because you can do a direct comparison between the two forms. This is the first scene, which you can compare to the first chapter. Much of the dialog is the same, but you can see where I am using language to represent action, even though it’s fairly clunky. If I had gotten out of draft form, I would have been able to replace some of that with sound effects.

The biggest difference is that the novel uses language as the primary method of telling the story and setting the scene. A radio play, even though language is a key element, shares the burden of storytelling with music and sound effects.

 SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY

A serial radio drama.

Mary Robinette Kowal

(scene 1 – the Wentworth parlor)

  1. SFX: Harpsichord music fading to pastoral soundscape, with birds.
  2. SFX: Footsteps on gravel. Door opens and shuts, cutting off pastoral soundscape.
  3. JANE: [coughing] Melody, what in heaven’s name is that stench?
  4. MELODY : Oh, Jane. When I visited Lady FitzCameron with Mama, she conjured the loveliest hint of jasmine in the air. It was so elegant and…
  5. JANE: Mercy! [more coughing]
  6. MELODY: I can not understand how she manages such a subtle touch.
  7. JANE: My dear, Lady FitzCameron went to Pomeroy’s Finishing School as a girl, it is hardly surprising that she can manage such delicate folds of magic with one of the best educations for which a woman can ask. (Magic FX) There. That’s better.
  8. MELODY: How do you do that?
  9. JANE: Please do not squint, dear. It is unbecoming.
  10. MELODY: What does it matter? I have no hope of catching a husband. I am so abysmally poor at all of the arts, and dear Father can not afford to dowry us, no matter how respectable our name is.
  11. JANE: (laughing) You have nothing to fear. Your face shall be your fortune.
  12. MELODY: Do you truly think so?
  13. JANE: Had I half your beauty I would have more beaus than the largest dowry could settle upon me.
  14. (pause)
  15. MELODY: Mr. Dunkirk sends his regards.
  16. JANE: I hope he is well.
  17. MELODY: He asked if he could call this afternoon. (sigh) That is why I wanted to freshen the parlour.
  18. JANE: Shall I help you set the parlour to rights then?
  19. MELODY: Would you?
  20. JANE: Of course. Perhaps a roseate glow in the northwest corner, like so?
  21. SFX: magic
  22. MELODY: Lovely.
  23. JANE: I think honeysuckle, so that it does not appear that we are aping Lady FiztCameron.
  24. SFX magic
  25. JANE: And now a touch of music.
  26. SFX: Simple air upon the piano,
  27. JANE: I’ll just tie the folds off like this and…voila!
  28. SFX: Music fades so that subtle music played as if in the distance. Door opens and footsteps enter.
  29. JANE: Father.
  30. FATHER: Hello, my dears. The parlour looks splendid! Are we expecting company?
  31. MELODY: Mr. Dunkirk said he would honor us with a visit this afternoon.
  32. FATHER: Did he? But I saw him not fifteen minutes ago passing though our fields with the FitzCamerons. They looked for all the world as if they were going hunting. Are you certain you did not mistake his meaning?
  33. MELODY: I am certain. But perhaps he preferred to spend the afternoon in the company of a lord than a farmer’s daughter.
  34. SFX: running footsteps out of room.
  35. FATHER: Good heavens. What has gotten in to the child? Does she think that the whole neighborhood must dance attendant on her whims?
  36. JANE: She is young and…I fear she may be developing an attachment to Mr. Dunkirk.
  37. FATHER: Does he return it?
  38. JANE: I do not know. Certainly his behavior has been above reproach in every instance of which I am aware.
  39. FATHER: Then we must hope that Melody will not embarrass herself.
  40. SFX Front door slam in distance.
  41. JANE: I fear that is what she has set out to do. Oh! Look out the window. She is crossing out fields to Lady FitzCameron’s home.
  42. FATHER: I will go fetch her, before she can do any damage to our neighbor’s good opinion of her.
  43. SFX: footsteps departing. Front door.
  44. JANE: (to self) I almost wish he would let her follow her stupid whims. Oh, but such folly would not turn Mr. Dunkirk’s attention to me.
  45. SFX: hard chord on Piano
  46. JANE: It is best for me to put it out of my mind.
  47. SFX: Piano and Magic. Door open. End song
  48. MR. DUNKIRK: Forgive me, Miss Wentworth. I had told your sister I would call, and am later than I intended.
  49. JANE: Mr. Dunkirk. You have just missed her, she has gone for a walk with my father. But please be welcome. May I offer you tea or a brandy?
  50. DUNKIRK: Thank you. I had no idea you were such an accomplished magician.
  51. JANE: It is an idle amusement, sir.
  52. DUNKIRK: Magic and the other womanly arts are what brings comfort to a home. I hope to have a home such as this one day.
  53. JANE: Indeed. I am certain that your home will be most gracious.
  54. DUNKIRK: But only if I have a wife with the gift of magic. Other men might seek a lovely face, but I should think that they would consider exquisite taste the higher treasure. Beauty will fade, but not a gift such as this.
  55. SFX: front door opened. Footsteps
  56. MELODY: (a cry of dismay)
  57. SFX: footsteps fleeing.
  58. FATHER: Good heavens! Um. Oh. Hello Mr. Dunkirk.
  59. DUNKIRK: Mr. Wentworth.
  60. JANE: If you will excuse me. I feel I must check on Melody.
  61. DUNKIRK: I hope she has not suffered an accident.
  62. FATHER: (mumbling) Ah. er. Melody…twisted her ankle while walking.
  63. DUNKIRK: I will leave you to tend to her.
  64. SFX footsteps
  65. DUNKIRK (cont.) May I call again?
  66. FATHER: Of course! Come whenever you like.
  67. DUNKIRK: Then I will see you soon. Your daughter is a credit to you, sir.
  68. SFX: door open and close
  69. FATHER: Well. Melody didn’t need to worry after all. ‘A credit’.
  70. JANE: Indeed.

 

Here, I’m still dealing with the same broad structure as a novel, but the way in which I use language to carry the story is entirely different. I wind up having to make the characters say things to describe what they are seeing, whereas with straight up fiction, whether spoken or audio, I can just create a word picture for the audience. Yay for narration!

So, whew. That’s my giant post about audio and fiction. Any questions?

#SFWApro

The post Mary’s tricks for writing fiction for audio appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

30 Oct 14:45

What Ancient Greek Music Sounded Like: Hear a Reconstruction That is ‘100% Accurate’

by Dan Colman

ancient greek music

Between 750 BC and 400 BC, the Ancient Greeks composed songs meant to be accompanied by the lyre, reed-pipes, and various percussion instruments. More than 2,000 years later, modern scholars have finally figured out how to reconstruct and perform these songs with (it’s claimed) 100% accuracy.

Writing on the BBC web site, Armand D’Angour,  a musician and tutor in classics at Oxford University, notes:

[Ancient Greek] instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.

And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.

The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals – an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.

The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch.

So what did Greek music sound like? Below you can listen to David Creese, a classicist from the University of Newcastle, playing “an ancient Greek song taken from stone inscriptions constructed on an eight-string ‘canon’ (a zither-like instrument) with movable bridges. “The tune is credited to Seikilos,” says Archaeology Magazine.

For more information on all of this, read D’Angour’s article over at the BBC.

via BoingBoing

Related Content:

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The History of Western Architecture: From Ancient Greece to Rococo (A Free Online Course)

What Shakespeare Sounded Like to Shakespeare: Reconstructing the Bard’s Original Pronunciation

What Ancient Greek Music Sounded Like: Hear a Reconstruction That is ‘100% Accurate’ is a post from: Open Culture. You can follow Open Culture on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and by Email.

27 Oct 14:37

http://bookelfe.livejournal.com/352614.html

The Dragon of the Lost Sea series is always going to be the Laurence Yep fantasy of my heart (and I'm so mad I forgot to nominate it for Yuletide this year!) but now I've finished his City Trilogy, which is also PRETTY CHARMING.

As I said when I wrote up the first book, this is super roller-coaster everything-and-the-kitchen-sink fantasy. An evil industrialist is trying to build a mythological super-weapon to conquer the AU 1940s! The only people who can stop him are a RAGTAG BAND OF MISFITS: a 12-year-old Kushite princess diplomat's daughter who's accidentally sworn her soul to a warrior goddess, her tiny griffin friend, a street urchin who is the reincarnation of the greatest enemy of dragonkind, his equally urchin-y money-loving tanuki bff who would just like to be home in San Francisco, and a world-weary exiled dragon assassin who wandered in from a much grittier book and is constantly wondering how she got stuck babysitting ALL THESE HUMAN CHILDREN, OH MY GOD.

Bit players and supporting characters include the goddess Pele, the god Dionysus, a Sogdian caravan train, a couple of ifrits, a secret Utopian society of foxes and polar bears hanging out in the North Pole, the semi-sentient Aurora Borealis, the North Wind, and an evil vizier. AMONG OTHERS. What I am saying is that THERE IS A LOT GOING ON IN THESE BOOKS.

My favorite, of course, is Bayang the dragon assassin. The development of the emotional arc between her and Accidentally Reincanated Baby Dragon Enemy Leech is really the heart of the story (whenever the story has time in between all the roller-coaster hijinks to have a heart).

BAYANG: Last week I was supposed to assassinate him, but now I have all these urges to tell him to put on a scarf before he goes outside . . .
BAYANG: . . . oh no . . . I think . . . I'm falling in Mom with him . . .

LEECH: Bayang look at me look at me I'm going to go take these dangerous weapons and go flying!
BAYANG: You put those weapons DOWN young man it is not SAFE
LEECH: YOU'RE NOT MY REAL MOM
LEECH: Also you systematically hunted down and slaughtered every single one of my past lives, so it's kind of hard to actually trust that you have my best interests at heart here :(
BAYANG: I know, our love is star-crossed and can never be :( :(

Why are there not more stories about star-crossed familial love? "Our households are at war, and there is all this terrible history that divides us, but I just want to adopt you!" Can we make this a narrative trope?

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from http://skygiants.dreamwidth.org/348173.html. Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
24 Sep 15:00

The Pontiff of No Return

by Benjamin J. Dueholm
pope-francis

“I am a really, really undisciplined person:” This confession, coming from the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics in a much-discussed, lengthy, and gripping interview last week, was not especially surprising to those who have followed the young papacy of Francis closely. From the moment of his election, stories have bubbled up about the unscripted papacy—about phone calls out of the blue to ordinary Catholics, about a mass being moved at the last minute to a juvenile detention center, about a member of the Swiss Guard being ordered to have a seat while protecting the new pontiff. In early statements, he rather mockingly disparaged both Catholic traditionalists (“restorationist”) and Catholic radicals (“pantheist”) and made a remark about salvation and atheists that Vatican spokesmen, like characters in a palace comedy, later had to clarify with a “what the Czar meant to say” sort of statement. “It’s just Francis being Francis,” I found myself starting to think, with a mixture of delight and suspense for what his papacy might entail.

From the beginning, the contrast with his predecessor could not have been more stark: Benedict was meticulous in his public statements, austere in demeanor, and took a rococo approach to vestments. Francis is improvisational, intimate, and dons more basic wear. He has famously eschewed the papal apartment for a room in the Vatican guest house. He drives an old Peugeot.

It’s true that these early departures were—as many progressives who were reluctant to place their faith in the new pontiff pointed out—mostly matters of style. But with the papacy as with few other offices, style truly is substance. The pope plays a uniquely visible function: representing Christ (and the church) to the world. And it was clear early on that the Christ represented by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires would cut a different figure than the Christ represented by the man formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger.

If the next pope drives an old Peugeot, no one will care; and if he brings back all the medieval trappings he’ll look foolish.

It was less obvious where the new pope stood on doctrinal issues. Until this week it was still possible to imagine Francis wrapping conventional theological views in a charmingly chaotic pastoral style. But the 12,000-word interview, conducted over three sessions and approved in its Italian text by the Vatican, closes that possibility definitively. It is a document that may fairly be called unprecedented. In discussing topics that range from doctrine and spirituality to art and music, Francis gives clear and fulsome voice to the long-muted tradition of theologically progressive Catholicism. On homosexuality, the role of women, and the collegial relationship between the pope and other bishops, Francis spoke carefully but encouragingly for the possibility of development. Doubt and the openness of faith are celebrated; the pope, himself a Jesuit, says that a Jesuit “must be a person whose thought is incomplete.” That there are turns ahead in Catholic faith and life, turns ardently hoped and worked for by some and resisted by others, is a possibility Francis leaves pointedly open.

But more striking than anything he has said about hot-button issues was the way in which he depicted the development of teaching and thought within the church. In facing the world, the church can’t let itself retreat into a “small chapel” for “a small group of selected people”—a clear rebuke to the many advocates for a “smaller, purer church.” “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” In an interview full of startling moments, this one stands out for what will likely become a rhetorical trademark of the Francis papacy: he identifies the impulse to separate from and reject the secularized society not with an admirable if misguided holiness, but with mediocrity. This mediocrity seeks only to discipline and correct a “barbarian” world, and to put the church into a posture of defense. But this, Francis insists, is exactly wrong. “There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning.” There is a difference between the genius of Thomas Aquinas and the “bankrupt” commentators who imitated him. “Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform,” Francis says, citing the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Caravaggio, Chagall, and Dali, “and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.” “In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.”

The interview met with a thunderous cheer from many quarters, believing, unbelieving, differently-believing, and estranged, and took a variety of forms. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross singled out a comment about Wagner’s Parsifal. A friend of mine who hasn’t been to mass in years confessed a desire to go “old-school Irish Catholic and hang a picture of the Pope in my living room.” It is easy to exaggerate the radicalism of his statements; the very next day he condemned abortion as an extension of the “indifference and solitude” to which we condemn the world’s poor. The ideas expressed in the interview are not new or unorthodox. They are thrilling to theological progressives and discouraging to church traditionalists less on their own account than because of the person giving them voice.

Francis inspires admiration or anger because he is supposed to inspire awe. The pope who began his papacy threatening to become a cassocked version of Warren Beatty’s Senator Bulworth has emerged quickly as a more classical, solid figure of reversal. A pope is not expected to wash the feet of female Muslim prisoners, to drive a beater, to live in a guest house, or to compare the church’s doctrine of humanity to the movement from classical sculpture to Dali. The irony of Francis’ young tenure in the chair of Peter is that he has become a hero (or a villain) by subverting the expectations of the very role that makes his utterances significant.

This subversion is unrepeatable. “I feel sorry for whoever has to be pope after Francis,” a theologian friend remarked to me. Having shown that a pope can perfectly well break down the hallowed distance between himself and the people, speak candidly and publicly about his own failings, and fearlessly push his church toward embracing “the freshness and fragrance of the gospel” over a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” Francis will leave his successor accountable either to continue doing so or to revert to a fustian papal model that will appear not so much grand and ancient as nostalgic and, to borrow Francis’ word, mediocre. If the next pope drives an old Peugeot, no one will care; and if he brings back all the medieval trappings he’ll look foolish.

In that sense, Francis has already made himself a pivotal figure. In answering his predecessor’s departing challenge to lead the church into a complex modern world, Francis has changed his office and his church. What remains to be seen is whether this modestly-styled, thrilling, frustrating papacy will retain enough awe to effect the renovation it promises.

15 Aug 13:28

The Shape of Rome

by bluejo@gmail.com
23 Sep 21:00

How Many Die From Medical Mistakes in U.S. Hospitals?

by Marshall Allen
medical-records-photo

It seems that every time researchers estimate how often a medical mistake contributes to a hospital patient’s death, the numbers come out worse.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published the famous “To Err Is Human” report, which dropped a bombshell on the medical community by reporting that up to 98,000 people a year die because of mistakes in hospitals. The number was initially disputed, but is now widely accepted by doctors and hospital officials—and quoted ubiquitously in the media.

In 2010, the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services said that bad hospital care contributed to the deaths of 180,000 patients in Medicare alone in a given year.

Now comes a study in the current issue of the Journal of Patient Safety that says the numbers may be much higher—between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death, the study says.

“All evidence points to the need for much more patient involvement in identifying harmful events and participating in rigorous follow-up investigations to identify root causes.”

That would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease, which is the first, and cancer, which is second.

The new estimates were developed by John T. James, a toxicologist at NASA‘s space center in Houston who runs an advocacy organization called Patient Safety America. James has also written a book about the death of his 19-year-old son after what James maintains was negligent hospital care.

Asked about the higher estimates, a spokesman for the American Hospital Association said the group has more confidence in the IOM’s estimate of 98,000 deaths. ProPublica asked three prominent patient safety researchers to review James’ study, however, and all said his methods and findings were credible.

What’s the right number? Nobody knows for sure. There’s never been an actual count of how many patients experience preventable harm. So we’re left with approximations, which are imperfect in part because of inaccuracies in medical records and the reluctance of some providers to report mistakes.

Patient safety experts say measuring the problem is nonetheless important because estimates bring awareness and research dollars to a major public health problem that persists despite decades of improvement efforts.

“We need to get a sense of the magnitude of this,” James said in an interview.

James based his estimates on the findings of four recent studies that identified preventable harm suffered by patients—known as “adverse events” in the medical vernacular—using a screening method called the Global Trigger Tool, which guides reviewers through medical records, searching for signs of infection, injury, or error. Medical records flagged during the initial screening are reviewed by a doctor, who determines the extent of the harm.

In the four studies, which examined records of more than 4,200 patients hospitalized between 2002 and 2008, researchers found serious adverse events in as many as 21 percent of cases reviewed and rates of lethal adverse events as high as 1.4 percent of cases.

By combining the findings and extrapolating across 34 million hospitalizations in 2007, James concluded that preventable errors contribute to the deaths of 210,000 hospital patients annually.

That is the baseline. The actual number more than doubles, James reasoned, because the trigger tool doesn’t catch errors in which treatment should have been provided but wasn’t, because it’s known that medical records are missing some evidence of harm, and because diagnostic errors aren’t captured.

An estimate of 440,000 deaths from care in hospitals “is roughly one-sixth of all deaths that occur in the United States each year,” James wrote in his study. He also cited other research that’s shown hospital reporting systems and peer-review capture only a fraction of patient harm or negligent care.

“Perhaps it is time for a national patient bill of rights for hospitalized patients,” James wrote. “All evidence points to the need for much more patient involvement in identifying harmful events and participating in rigorous follow-up investigations to identify root causes.”

Dr. Lucian Leape, a Harvard pediatrician who is referred to as the “father of patient safety,” was on the committee that wrote the “To Err Is Human” report. He told ProPublica that he has confidence in the four studies and the estimate by James.

Members of the Institute of Medicine committee knew at the time that their estimate of medical errors was low, he said. “It was based on a rather crude method compared to what we do now,” Leape said. Plus, medicine has become much more complex in recent decades, which leads to more mistakes, he said.

Dr. David Classen, one of the leading developers of the Global Trigger Tool, said the James study is a sound use of the tool and a “great contribution.” He said it’s important to update the numbers from the “To Err Is Human” report because in addition to the obvious suffering, preventable harm leads to enormous financial costs.

Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at The Johns Hopkins Hospital whose book Unaccountable calls for greater transparency in health care, said the James estimate shows that eliminating medical errors must become a national priority. He said it’s also important to increase the awareness of the potential of unintended consequences when doctors perform procedure and tests. The risk of harm needs to be factored into conversations with patients, he said.

Leape, Classen, and Makary all said it’s time to stop citing the 98,000 number.

Still, hospital association spokesman Akin Demehin said the group is sticking with the Institute of Medicine’s estimate. Demehin said the IOM figure is based on a larger sampling of medical charts and that there’s no consensus the Global Trigger Tool can be used to make a nationwide estimate. He said the tool is better suited for use in individual hospitals.

The AHA is not attempting to come up with its own estimate, Demehin said.

Dr. David Mayer, the vice president of quality and safety at Maryland-based MedStar Health, said people can make arguments about how many patient deaths are hastened by poor hospital care, but that’s not really the point. All the estimates, even on the low end, expose a crisis, he said.

“Way too many people are being harmed by unintentional medical error,” Mayer said, “and it needs to be corrected.”


This post originally appeared on ProPublica, a Pacific Standard partner site.

23 Aug 15:07

this day in Beatlemania

Score one more for the OUP blog:

http://blog.oup.com/2013/08/beatles-she-loves-you-23-august-1963/

The choice of the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” also carried an obvious coded ideological meaning for younger fans. When the songwriters returned to McCartney’s Liverpool home the day after Newcastle and played their new creation for his father, he complained about the distinctly American flavor of the language, instead preferring “yes, yes, yes.” In a context where the Beatles’ primary audience (teens) sought to distinguish themselves from their parents and their parents’ generation, the simple use of language could prove a subtle and effective marker. “Yeah, yeah, yeah” evoked both rebellion and an innocence of teen infatuation that parents might protest, but could not ban, especially coming as it did in the context of a song. They might correct their children’s speech, but the words to a song were a kind of excusable poetic extravagance. --Gordon R. Thompson

...huh. who knew?
15 Jul 23:01

Japanese Edo village

by Muza-chan

The first open-air museum in Japan was opened in 1956 in Toyonaka city, Osaka: the Open-Air Museum of Old Japanese Farm Houses. Since then, several other museums appeared, showcasing region specific buildings.

So far, my favorite traditional Japanese buildings are those from the Edo Period and one of the most important museums presenting them is Boso-no-Mura, located in the Sakae town, Chiba: it presents about 30 buildings, including samurai residences, merchant houses, farmhouses, even a kabuki stage and a water mill.

Here’s the main street, photographed in the light of the evening, with a couple of workshops and the red gates of the Inari shrine.

Click on photo for higher resolution:

Boso no Mura Open Air Museum, Chiba
Boso no Mura Open Air Museum, Chiba

EXIF Info:

Nikon D90
Lens: VR 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6G
Focal Length: 18mm
Aperture: F/5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/250s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 200

Yesterday’s Japan Photo: Meiji Jingu Shinto wedding procession

14 Aug 00:01

Japanese garden aesthetic principles, Asymmetry

by Muza-chan
The third part of the “Japanese garden aesthetic principles” series of articles

There is one principle common to all Japanese gardens: the asymmetry. And the best example is the Zen type garden, because it is meant to be admired as a whole. More than this, the imperfection is very important to the Zen philosophy and like with the broken symmetry of the Ensō Zen circle, the Japanese garden beauty is created through asymmetry…

Click on photo for higher resolution:

Moss covered Japanese Zen Garden, Ryogin-tei, Ryogen-in Temple, Kyoto
Moss covered Japanese Zen Garden, Ryogin-tei, Ryogen-in Temple, Kyoto

EXIF Info:

Nikon D300
Lens: 8-16mm F/4.5-5.6G
Focal Length: 10mm
Aperture: F/7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/800s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 200

Yesterday’s Japan Photo: Japanese traditional architecture, Irimoya-zukuri

08 Aug 20:02

How to unfuck performance reviews

by michaelochurch

In most companies, performance reviews are a ridiculous process that does orders of magnitude more harm than it does good. If they’re an inconsequential formality, they waste everyone’s time. If they actually matter, they become touch-points for horse-trading and political activity that has nothing to do with work, instead creating enmities that divide the organization– managers vs. reports, managers vs. other managers, et cetera– and demolish efficiency. Good managers often ignore this “responsibility” by providing honest feedback verbally while putting nothing negative on paper (since doing so can cause a bilateral breakdown in loyalty) unless required to impose a forced distribution (i.e. some percentage must fail) on their employees, in which case the company just goes up in flames. Worst of all, performance reviews hinder internal mobility, because only people with extremely high scores are able to transfer, creating “warring departments” mentalities as team assignments become effectively permanent. (Those with good reviews want to keep getting promoted where they are; the rest are unwanted and can’t transfer.) Finally, review don’t work at their stated purpose, which is to punish the bad and reward the good. For the worst people– those who actively harm a team or company– one cannot afford to wait for an annual review to take action. The best people aren’t really motivated by reviews either– they want promotions, pay raises, and more autonomy, not mere confirmation that they “exceed expectations”. Give a top performer a rating of “exceeds expectations” with no improvement in pay, autonomy, or working conditions, and you’ll just piss her off.

If performance reviews are so terrible, then why do companies use them at all? My belief is that the architects of most of HR systems know that the best and worst performers can’t really be addressed through such bureaucratic systems. Reviews exist for the people in the middle, who are not in the running for promotion, but are basically competent and never going to do anything so wrong as to get themselves fired for cause. They still need, according to conventional HR theory, to be scared a little bit. The middling 90 percent are basically the forgotten children of an organization, and performance reviews are there to make them feel watched. Firing the “bottom” (often, the unluckiest) 5 percent is supposed to scare people into doing whatever they can to land above the blade, but what it actually does is make the environment needlessly more political. I’m not going to argue that this “scare the middle” approach works, but only that it is an existing motivation. It goes back to Jack Welch’s statement that “A players hire A players, B players hire C players”. B players are the competent but unexceptional people in the above-mentioned middle 90%; C players are the truly toxic ones who don’t get any work done, ruin morale, and can kill an organization. Yet another Welchian anxiety is around the idea that B players will become C players over time. The purpose (whether it succeeds would require another discussion) of the annual review is to prevent that.

This, all in all, is pretty fucked. Employees don’t like the intimidation angle; and good managers don’t like being on the other side of it, either. A manager who is honest and gives negative marks for poor performance will never garner real respect or loyalty from his reports, because he’s selling them out to HR. On the other hand, if a manager inflates grades on paper (which is the right thing to do, because it is unreasonable to demand loyalty without returning it; negative feedback should be private, verbal, and constructive) then he is rendering the whole process a waste of time. One might argue that positive reviews can help a good manager in supporting the people below him; the truth, however, is that good managers don’t need HR paper to support the people below them. Good managers in good companies can get resources, autonomy, and promotions for their people without having to write annual reviews.

One might think, then, that I’m suggesting that companies should do away with performance reviews entirely. To be honest, that would improve on what 90% (if not 99%) of companies already have. However, I think there is a way to preserve what little good there is in the process of performance reviews, which is to document a trajectory and present a case for promotion. The process needs to be revamped in a major way, however. Here’s how to do it: each person is reviewed at the next level. Instead of subjecting people to this humiliating reminder that they’re being watched for decline (from B into C-player status) there is a better goal to be sought, which is to try to convert some of those B-players into A-players. A fundamental problem with the HR way of thinking is that it assumes the worst of people, making progress (from a B- or even C-player status to A-player contribution) so far outside of its context that the only thing left is to watch for decline. But good organizations should be focused on making people better.

Here, I’m assuming (to start) a formal hierarchy or “ladder”. I’m not necessarily in support of that, but I’m assuming here that one exists. If someone is a Level 5 engineer, then he should only be reviewed for Level 6. It’s not part of his transfer packet, it doesn’t go on his record unless he wants it there. (I’m in favor of making work less like a prison, so putting things “on [someone's] HR file” doesn’t do it for me.) In other words, the purpose of the performance review is to answer the question: how far is she along to the next level?

See, this is a non-insulting way of handling performance assessment. People are assumed to be competent and “performing” at their jobs. (If they’re not, an annual review is far too late to work on that.) That’s not even to be on the table. Rather, the discussion centers on progress and the future, and whether a person is on track to get where he wants to be.

What if not everyone wants to be promoted in the same way? Or how would this work in a non-hierarchical corporation? Then it gets more interesting, and better. Each review cycle (which should be more often than annually, because if you’re going to do something like this, it should be done right) the person decides what he or she wants to be able to do, in the company, in the future; in the next cycle, the manager can assess whether that person’s efforts succeeded in taking him or her in the right direction. Reviews are in this context: whether the person is taking the right steps to get where he or she genuinely wants to go. If so, then things are running well. Good! If not, then it’s useful to discuss which efforts are leading the person in the desired direction, and which are less productive. This has managers acting more like talent agents than parole officers and, on the whole, I think that’s a major improvement.


17 Jul 15:49

National Trust Images

Sometimes (as you know, Bob) I daydream about writing historical fiction, and sometimes that involves reading about old houses. When that happens, inevitably it turns out that some of the houses I'm reading about are owned and maintained by the National Trust (UK), and so sometimes I look those houses up on the National Trust website.

What I only recently realized is that they also have a whole site for images:

http://www.nationaltrustimages.org.uk/

And they're organized by keyword, so you can look up a specific property - but you could also search, say, "16th," and get back pages upon pages of details of 16th-c architecture: paneling, plasterwork, ceiling decorations, all sorts of things. It's actually a bit overwhelming, but I've been having fun with it, and think it could be a good resource - especially if you, like me, have difficulty with imagining what things looked like.
09 Jul 13:55

wow, that's terrifying

Apparently there's a giant fiberglass statue of wet-shirt Darcy* in the Serpentine, in Hyde Park. As advertising. For some TV network:

http://austenblog.com/2013/07/08/in-which-giant-colin-in-the-pond-moves-the-editrix-to-song/

Why would you. Just. Why.



*It's apparently some weird composite Darcy, so it doesn't really look like Colin Firth. (If you scroll down to the end of the post, you can read the press release for this nightmare. Which I use literally, as in, "if I saw this thing in real life, I'm pretty sure it would haunt my dreams.")
06 Jul 14:56

Stairway to Heaven

by Erin

4 July 2013 – Cleveland, Ohio
by Eliza

During a trivia game a few years ago, I was asked what waterway bypasses Niagara Falls. The answer is the Welland Canal, a twenty six mile channel that winds from Lake Ontario up to Lake Erie. I knew the answer right away, for an atypical reason – I’ve gone through it. And a few days ago, I went through it again.

If you’ve been around the maritime industry for a year or two, you’ve probably heard of the Welland Canal. A series of eight locks operate as a floating stairway to lift and lower vessels over three hundred feet. Cargo vessels built halfway around the world are constructed to the dimensions of the Welland Canal locks. It takes seven to seventeen hours to get through the locks, primarily based on traffic, and often requires all hands on deck to manipulate docklines and fenders.

On Monday morning, the crews of Unicorn and Pride of Baltimore II woke shortly after five and got underway for Port Welland. The other boats would follow later that day. We collected every fender on board and lashed them over the sides. They would absorb the shock and protect the boat if we made contact with the lock walls. We then lashed newly created “Welly-boards” outboard of the fenders. These sacrificial chunks of lumber slide up the lock walls as the boat rises. Some tall ships even add a second layer of sacrificial wood, nicknamed “spuds”. If there is still a great deal of friction as the vessel grinds up the lock wall, a crew member may be sent to take the cook’s container of Crisco and be told to slather grease all over the fenders. Having accomplished this duty for Lynx, a Crisco-covered crewmember earned the nickname Crisco Man!

We reached the first lock around 0800 and were lucky to find a green light, signaling us to enter.  The Captains took the helms and skillfully steered into a towering, cement box. One of the most remarkable features of the locks is their immense size. Only more remarkable is the size of the cargo vessels that traverse them. Lines were tossed down from the top of the lock wall, nearly forty feet above our heads. We hitched these lines to our sturdy docklines so that workers on the dock could haul our docklines up and loop them around bollards. Once we were secure, enormous wood and metal gates slammed shut behind us and water started pouring into the lock.

We had requested a slow fill but the turbulence in and beneath the water rocked the boat. At the Captain’s orders, deckhands aboard eased and took up slack in the docklines, enabling us to maintain our position as we quickly rose to dock level and cheering bystanders appeared through the chain link fences at the edge of the cement dock. Finally, the water settled. Ahead, the thick gates rumbled open and we glimpsed flashes of green grass and trees and murky, blue, canal water. Slipping off the dock and out of the lock, the crew breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed on the deckboxes, exhausted. One down, seven to go.


24 Jun 06:01

Author Interview: Sherwood Smith

by Phyllis Irene Radford

Sherwood Smith

INTERVIEWED by KATHARINE ELISKA KIMBRIEL

sherwoodsmith-photobylynnglazer_200h

Q.)What drew you to Book View Cafe?

A.)I first became aware of BVC when the announcement went out that it was forming. A group for getting backlist into ebook? Oh, yeah, it was like it was made for me.

Except I wasn’t in it. Argh!

But within a year or so, in talking with members Judith Tarr and Deborah Ross, I found out how it worked. In those early days, you not only were expected to pitch in in some way to help the labor flow (and there is enormous labor flow) but to broadcast the “dowry”, which was a blurb written up for each new release.

The intent behind this “dowry” was good, because as everyone knows, a book no one knows about goes unread and unbought. And in those days (this makes it sound like decades ago, but it was just what, four years? Five?) anyway, Twitter was new, Facebook was exciting and fast paced and many swore by it as a PR tool.

Within a year or so after my joining, BVC was busy seriously reassessing. The “dowry” was jettisoned, as there was negative feedback about spamming the same PR message all over the social media, where PR blurbs were mushrooming faster than shoe fungus in an army on the march, and were thus about as welcome.

At the same time, BVC began bringing out original works. These were by members, as it was assumed that members were already professional level writers. But it soon became apparent that few of us are able to do our own editing, and especially copyediting and proofing. How to deal? We wanted books of quality for the readership who liked the target subgenre, and yet no one wanted an editorial board.

I was so glad to see that, because in my experience, fun groups that got together to critique or discuss writing would inevitably say, “Hey, why don’t we publish a magazine?” And that would be the beginning of the end, as political infighting determined who was going to be Queen Bee. BVC was successful because decisions were batted around until consensus was reached.

The decision was made to form a pool of members who had edited, to serve as beta readers. The author was still in the driver’s seat. But getting feedback, and then re-submitting the book to another pool for copyediting and proofing, meant that the books would get as much professional attention as most books published by the big six. Sometimes more.

At the same time, some very savvy members started looking hard at what kinds of cover art worked, and how to make it when you have a budget of $0.00 Some of the early covers (like mine, which I made myself) are stinkers, but they have since come to look professional and evocative.

Meanwhile, members were also busy with outreach, resulting in Book View Cafe’s catalog going out to libraries all over the world, and other exciting developments in the back room.

And yet members were still going to cons here in North America, gatherings, and contacting reviewers or whatever, and on mentioning Book View Cafe, got the blank look and the WHO?

There are two challenges for any publishing venture. One, production, which (let’s face it) is a protracted, painstaking job of work. Then there is getting the word out. If you do not have a PR budget, and you don’t want to be annoying people with tweets and twitters and Facebook blurb-bombs, how do you connect potential readers with the sorts of books they are looking for?

BVC is trying a lot of different things, seeing what works, what doesn’t. My own cherished theory is that content is king, but there is also the matter of style. I think to catch the attention of the constantly clicking reader one has to be interesting. Yeah, but how? We all want to be interesting to others, or we wouldn’t be in the field we’re in. So this is an ongoing process.

Q.) What titles can BVC readers expect to see from you?

A.) Two of my titles have become popular in a modest way, and they were fun to write. So first off I have coming up this summer, a fluffy and fun YA fantasy adventure with a romantic tinge, called Lhind the Thief. It should appeal to the readers who liked A Posse of Princesses.

Then I am writing a Napoleonic era romance for those who liked Danse de la Folie, which is an old-fashioned silver fork novel. Rondo Allegro begins on the continent, stops by Revolutionary France, and then goes north to England after Trafalgar.

Q.) With urban fantasy taking over more and more of the genre these days, how do you think epic fantasy will do in the long run?

A.) That is so hard to say! Judging by the vigorous sales as well as debate all over the internet, epic fantasy is back in fashion, perhaps stronger than ever. Readers are passionate about epic fantasy, from the postmodern “grimdark” to the old-fashioned quest tale built around a hero who becomes king, which I think hearkens back to the centuries-old seduction of competence and dash. (Look up the history of words like panache and sprezzatura.)

Book View Cafe offers those, too.


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