Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Marion Deeds

We were very pleased to have author Marion Deeds join us on the show to talk about her work and her interests. I started by asking her what her favorite thing is in writing. She told us that she really likes cultural things - language, clothing, how status is communicated, etc. She told us that for a long time she wasn't at all interested in economic topics, but now that she works on fiction she finds herself quite intrigued by them, and by currency systems in particular.

I asked her about the stories she has written which are set during the Prohibition era. Marion says it was a very interesting time, and her version of the era also has magic... which, it turns out, is the prohibited substance! Marion told us that she had family members living in Massachusetts during Prohibition, and they would take regular "vacation trips" to Canada, after which their back room was open for business. The husband of the couple would apparently come back, kiss his wife goodnight and leave her gift bottle of alcohol on the bedstand.

Apparently, during this era, Canadian laws on alcohol were a patchwork by province. The French territory islands were not hard to get to, and helped people to find a way around the Prohibition.

Marion told us about an appearance of a man by the name of J. I. Rodale on the Dick Cavett show, in which the man declared "I'm going to live to 100" and then died of a heart attack on the show a mere ten minutes later. J. I. Rodale was one of the authors of "The Said Book," which suggests that "said" is such a boring speech tag that one should never use it, but find a flashy verb with a flashier modifier. She then explained how she wanted to "inflict the Said Book" on the story of the Maltese Falcon and turn it into a comic pastiche. A magical curse is the MacGuffin in this context... the idea is that there is a grimoire that, when you hold it in your hand, causes you to "see" in purple prose. Naturally, people think they can control it, but they're wrong. The main character, a parody of Sam Spade, is called Rick Rake. In this world, magic is known and codified. San Francisco is a bit lawless, though, and not limiting it much. Her origin story for the Bridget O'Shaughnessy character, "Never Truly Yours," appeared at Podcastle.

In this world, magic is accepted. It's exploited, controlled, accepted by different people. Some people are superstitious. There's even a tax system associated with it. Marion calls it "not terribly alternate history." She says that magic appeared in this world around the same time as the Spiritualist movement.

Marion also told us about her work in progress, which she describes as a portal family where the strange an exotic fantasy world is actually our world - specifically, Vallejo, California. Vallejo has an interesting military history which includes a base which closed, possibly as a result of "realpolitik." It also has Muir island.

The people coming through the portal are non-human magic users who are something like fairies but not fae. They can pass for human 99% of the time, but some humans can see them. A young woman encounters them. She has post-traumatic stress disorder from having been through a domestic terrorist bombing. Something else has also happened to make her think she's delusional. However, she can see through glamour.

One of the interesting concepts here is that glamour is a sort of magical technology, and while the first arrivals have a form of it, they anticipate that second wave arrivals might have an even better glamour that the first-wave magic users can't see through, but which the protagonist can.

Marion described doing some interesting things with posture and body language in this world. Lowering of the head is a challenge because they have horns. Raising the head is submissive because you're exposing your throat. She wanted a lot of things to be different.

One of the key characters is a hereditary ruler of the magic-users who fled after surviving an assassination attempt as a child. Her experience is portrayed in a flashback. There are elements of the story that resemble first contact, and others that have the flavor of alien invasion. Politics is also important, as one faction of magic users wants to put the fallen ruler back into power. These people laugh at the idea of democracy. Their magic manipulates electricity, but they struggle with our world because we manipulate electricity differently. Cell phones, for example, freak them out. They are smaller than us.

One really interesting aspect of the story is that the visitors aren't necessarily able to digest the same food we do, so at the start they struggled to find food they could digest.

The struggle of the fallen ruler is in part that she's stuck where no one really knows what she looks like, and she has lost her family and her cultural practices, and even her way home.

We were all intrigued by the idea of a character living in the Bay Area and not being able to find things to eat. Everyone would either imagine she has allergies or is extremely picky!

Miranda, the human character, undergoes a magical procedure that helps her understand the newcomers' language, which sounds like bird calls if you haven't had the procedure. We discussed some of the challenges of portraying alien languages in a written story, and how one can alter English prose to express difference without having the language sound like Yoda, or sound silly or stupid. One important thing can be maintaining a willingness to experiment, and to recognize that it might take more than one attempt to get the language right.

Che told us about a book she read which had been written in the word order of American Sign Language, which sounded fascinating. ASL has different syntax and grammar, but also a unique culture of directness.

Kate remarked on how international students coping with English can have trouble because of our ridiculously massive lexicon of vocabulary.

Marion told us that she wanted no king or queen, and no kingdom. She wanted to use metaphors about the ocean because the land of the newcomers was coastal.

Kate mentioned an interesting method for creating profanity suggested by Ben Rosenbaum and Monica Valentinelli. The example given was that when water is a sacred space and the place you live in, "one who litters into water" would be a terrible insult.

Thank you so much to Marion Deeds for coming on the show and giving us a peek into her thought processes! This was a really fun discussion.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018


This was an interesting discussion about something that often flies under the radar. This is about body habits. It's about furniture design. What kind of angles do we like for our backs? What kind of seats do we expect to sit on? Many of the objects in our lives are designed assuming a particular body size and proportion (or lack of size). Think about what kind of body position is the result of first class or economy seats in airplanes?

We should not lock our knees. When I was in band, we were taught never to lock knees while we were on review, or we would pass out.

What does "holding your back straight" mean? Do you hold your back straight when you lift things?

How much are people expected to stick their butts out while standing or moving?

Are certain postures considered sexual?

Gender has a lot do do with posture, as when we compare keeping knees together vs. manspreading on public transportation.

Ergonomics became very lucrative at a certain point; it relies on a certain kind of knowledge of science and a certain degree of expectation in terms of body posture.

Clothing is designed to affect your movement. It can improve your posture, or restrict your posture. Military uniform collars force you to hold your head high.

Men's suits are designed to standardize their appearance, regularizing the width of the shoulders, etc.

Dancing and yoga improve your posture in regular daily activities. Yoga can reduce spine compression. Exercise develops your muscle tone, and habitual slouching can lead to not being able to straighten.

Think about the environment of the world, and how you inhabit it. Many things can affect this, including clothing and accessories, architecture, furniture, etc. Kate remarked how her bifocals were designed incorrectly, and she has to bend down to see through the upper part of the classes.

I told a story about crossing the street one night with a group of friends in Salt Lake City. I had my head and shoulders back, and was striding long, and my professor told me that it was a very American way to walk. Culture influences posture expectations, and we imitate the posture of those around us. Kate said she could pass for Indian if she didn't move or speak. Habits of movement can definitely indicate the culture we came from.

People pay close attention to posture and body language. Depending on who you are, misreading these cues can be literally dangerous. Women will often match themselves to the amount of space taken up by others. Men engage in unique forms of posturing like the chest-out confrontation posture. There are many ways for people of any gender to make themselves look large (for the purposes of driving off mountain lions, if nothing else!).

The body language of other species is very different from ours. Dog body language varies a lot even between subspecies. Cat body language is also different.

In cultures with a bowing habit, there are different kinds of bowing styles and postures. Much of it relies on the idea of making yourself smaller. How far you bow, and the angle of the back when you stop, can both be important to the meaning of the bow.

Kimberly told us about a friend she had who was a diplomat in training, and how they had materials to review on body language and how to return respect appropriately to people from different cultures.

Throwing down a gauntlet or other object relies on the idea of forcing the opponent to bow.

Dogs make bows when they are inviting you to play. Cats can have a tummy-up posture to invite play. Kate told us that her cats stand and beg for treats.

In martial arts, there are ways to indicate that a bout is for practice or serious fighting.

We talked a little about our cats' postural habits. My boy cat will indicate whether he accepts your hug by either looking me in the eye (no) or resting the top of his head against my neck (yes). My girl cat will not accept being picked up except when she consents to let me serve as her conveyance from one room to the very next place where she finds a surface within jumping distance. She indicates her disdain by remaining poised to jump even when I carry her.

Kate told us that when she worked at Disney, employees who wore giant heads were encouraged to smile inside the head because it changes the way that your body moves. Just as you can hear a smile in someone's voice, you can see it in the way someone moves their body. It's very difficult to stop your body from moving if you are talking, which is why they tell you not to talk when you have an MRI.

Do you tilt your head when you talk? Do you move your hands?

Kimberly noted that when you are doing animation, you have to remember that it's not okay for only the character's lips to move during speech. The whole body must move. She said that in long shots of characters, small strapped studios will sometimes cut the extra movement from the animation of visual effects. I remarked that I had seen character selection rooms where every character's shoulders are moving up and down in eerie unison. Kimberly said that movement was very important to the realism of the characters.

What is "creepy posture"? What kind of body movement is creepy? Getting into someone's personal space, or standing too close. Holding someone's eyes for too long, or prolonging touch, can be creepy. We remarked on the unique skill of actor Brad Dourif in portraying creepy characters.

We don't have fully conscious control over our body posture. Many of our stances we take involuntarily, or at least without purposeful planning.

Ready stances differ between different martial arts, and from different styles of dance. The "string out of the top of your head" straight posture is not the posture used for Tai Chi and some others where you round your shoulders and soften your head.

American Sign Language has a formal speaking posture, but also has a hip-forward foot-forward posture which allows more upper body movement.

When people take formal photos, they often have particular postures suggested to them, and those postures differ depending on how the photographer perceives the person's gender.

Female superheroes and women on book covers tend to be placed in the back-breaking "boob and butt" pose, which Jim Hines marvelously critiqued in his own series of posed photos.

People socialized to one gender will have to re-learn how to do the body language for their true gender.

Are you supposed to stand up straight with your hands out of your pockets? What do you do with your hands in a photo? What do you do with your elbows? These choices can be very gendered. Brian remarked that male royals from England often stand with their hands behind their back. Kate noted that this is true also of parade rest, and it keeps you from having to decide what to do with your hands.

There are different kinds of hand gestures, which can lead to problems when you see things like white suburban kids affecting gang signs.

There are different kinds of nods, like the chin-up nod, and the chin-down nod. There are also different kinds of walks. You can see them most easily in places where a lot of people walk around, like big cities with public transportation.

Do people get out of each other's way while walking?

Do elbows get thrown on the dance floor? How polite is your mosh pit?

Have you ever noticed that ballerinas walk differently from other people?

Different dances have different neutral dance postures. It is possible to dance "with an accent," or even to ride a horse with an accent.

How far do you bend down to talk to a small child? Do you squat? Do you do anything to avoid looking down or looming over the child? Do you choose to take yourself out of a large authoritative posture? Why? How does it reflect your relationship?

Thank you to everyone who attended. Today's hangout will be at 4pm, and we'll be discussing Entering the Story World.


Monday, April 2, 2018

Personal Weapons

We always knew this one was going to be interesting, but the place we started was in fact...


At a certain point in history, women would hold their hats to their hair with pins which could be as long as 6-7 inches, and would use those for self-defense. They were effective enough that they were actually outlawed.

Personal weapons can be obvious or concealed. They can also be repurposed things like hatpins and knitting needles. People have carried corset knives. Skin-hugging clothes make hiding weapons difficult. The American TSA seems to think black women will hide weapons in their hair, even though they don't. Jason Momoa might, though, in one of his shows...

Eliminating pockets for women was a response in part to women carrying weapons in their pockets.

Guns are considered personal weapons, at least in the US.

A sugar hammer, which was once used for breaking up blocks of sugar, could be used for other purposes. Ice picks have featured in various movies. High heels can be weapons.

If you are writing a story set in a secondary world, consider under what circumstances people might carry weapons. Would those be tools that could also be used as weapons? Would they be something you needed to carry with you every day? Why or why not?

Some weapons can be specifically banned by a society.

Kat talked about a person having a set of the Amendments to the American Constitution printed on steel, which was to be a propaganda tool against the TSA. The sheet of steel was just as likely to cut you.

Jurisdictions can be important here. Different regions will have different rules and laws.

What happens if you are a traveling chef and have to carry knives with you?

TSA has weird criteria and they are often theatrical. Would they confiscate a titanium pry-bar with no blade? Would they consider pots and pans bludgeons?

Apparently, once a suffragette threw an axe.

The surrounding circumstances of a character have a lot do do with whether they carry a weapon. Are they out in the woods? Are they in a higher-tech city? Do they carry lightsabers? What about tasers? Pepper spray? Sonic weapons?

Which weapons in the society you are creating are legislated against? Which are allowed?

People who carried eating knives would have an available weapon any time.

What is considered a weapon? Do different types of people carry different types of weapons? What is a weapon and what is a tool? What is a toy?

Can you get killed for carrying a cosplay weapon? Racism has a lot do do with what kinds of things will get you shot at in American society. Is there something similar in your fictional society?

There have been periods in history where being weaponless was considered "not completely dressed."

Kat described how Marguerite Reed discusses the culture of weapons in her book, Archangel. There is a designated hunter who is also a defensive specialist. Her weapon must be stored carefully and separately from her ammunition.

Could we have rules requiring all weapons, say, all guns, to be identifiable by chip?

Are your weapons defensive or offensive? Against whom are they intended to be used?

Who is allowed weapons is often a political question. One reason they were allowed on the frontier, Kat explained, was not just because there were bears, but also because there were conquered people there. We do tend to create narratives that hide the purpose of weapons.

Would people disarm if all the menacing fauna had been killed or removed?

Why is a weapon personal? Could it be communal? How would the two differ?

Is there a dueling culture in your society?

England has a relatively safe natural environment. Australia is actually not that dangerous (seriously, folks).

A shovel could serve as a personal weapon against a rattlesnake. You don't have to have a gun to face down a cougar. What story do you tell yourself to justify your weapon? How true is that story?

You don't shoot a deer with an AK-47.

There may be an understory about the possession of weapons in this society, that is taboo or otherwise going untold.

Is violence glorified?

Have you outsourced personal safety to a neighborhood watch? A police officer?

The narratives about weapons may not be consistent, as when people in the US talk about supporting the troops but also about being ready to shoot them.

Army bases are gun-free zones. The idea that a gun-free zone is a place where "stuff happens" is a false narrative. Tamir Rice was killed for holding a toy gun in an open carry state. What narrative was used to justify that? Are there similar narratives in the world you are creating?

Toddlers with firearms are a huge problem in the US, but people don't like to talk about it.

1984 and Brave New World featured government propaganda. Is there government propaganda about weapons in your world? What might it be?

Lois McMaster Bujold sets up an interesting situation where you are required to wear two swords, but you get a death sentence if you use them.

What is violence? Is ordering people out to die also violence?

Where is the line between the scientific explorer and the conqueror? Expeditionary force tools can become weapons. People can weaponize their surroundings.

Are there remote distance weapons?

Are the most commonly used weapons high-skill weapons (light sabers) or low-skill weapons (phasers, blasters)?

What happens when there is a disparity in technology levels? Does the high technology always win? Delicate mechanisms associated with high tech can break. Some weapons on Earth have been de-mechanized for sandy conditions that might damage them. A high-tech weapon is not necessarily one that requires less skill to operate.

The kinetic energy capacitor in Black Panther's suit was cool.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this interesting discussion.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Temperature Control

When we say "temperature control," we can come at it from angles like clothes, heating and cooling, architecture, etc. Even seat warmers in cars can count!

We started out talking about homes around the world. Traditional Japanese houses, Kat observed, were designed around surviving the heat. They were raised off the ground, with paper walls to increase air circulation. They were not, however, designed to stay warm. This is why the system of hot bath at bedtime+futon with insulation came to be, and why they have things like heated tables. There is a strong belief in keeping your belly warm. In California, insulation is the answer to heat. There is, for example, the history of adobe as a building material. We noted that in California, the cold is generally not life-threatening if you have some form of shelter.

In snowy places, homes need to be very warm to warm you up after you come in.

Accommodations to temperature don't always make efficient sense. Often, business air conditioning is kept overly cool so that male employees can wear three-piece suits.

You should always consider climate when worldbuilding. It's also a really good idea to think through how people build homes to control temperature, and how people dress.

In Israel, Kat mentioned you often see haridi dressed "like 19th century cossacks or Polish nobility," uncompromising to the heat. The pressure of cultural rules of dress must not be discounted. Cliff noted that in India under the occupation of the British Empire, the heavy clothes of colonizers were considered to be a sign of "civilization" rather than "going native."

People make constant adjustments of clothes and technology. Kat remarked that if you work in a bank, you can't wear beach clothes even if it's hot.

Cliff pointed out that in science fiction, the moment when someone takes off their space suit or breathing device is a really important one, and can be used to symbolize "going native." Cold and heat are extreme in space, and a space suit must be designed to handle that.

Kat brought up the architecture of midwest Victorians, which have high ceilings and windows designed to deal with heat. Ceiling fans are a big help. Newer buildings designed with air conditioning tend to have lower ceilings.

People in Great Britain, where atmospheric heat is harder to come by, don't tend to put ice in their drinks. This may have arisen as a technique to maintain internal body temperature.

Whenever you transplant architecture from one climate to another, you may wind up with "silly" architecture, which doesn't match the surroundings. This can happen with invaders.

Using temperature control for food preservation is relatively new, historically. It depends on your location. Using ice from the surrounding environment, or using cool underground springs, are some of the earliest techniques used for food preservation by temperature. Are these available in the location you are describing? At the moment, our own main chosen technology is cold storage, while canning and pickling have become old-fashioned.

Wool clothes against winter cold have to have their own form of special storage. Culture can change things like the fur coat industry. On some level, high-tech materials can't substitute for fur against the cold. Kat called it "putting Luke inside the tauntaun."

"Space blankets" can be super warm.

You can buy heating or cooling gel warmers for your hands. In the olden days, you might have carried a hot potato in your pocket. There were also warming pans for beds, which the servants might run underneath the sheets. Pets also make good bed-warmers!

Hypocausts, or heated floors, were used in Roman times. Hot spring water has definitely been adapted by many cultures for temperature control. You also have the sauna/banya concept with the cold plunge...

People have a lot of beliefs about temperature depending on which climate they grew up in. What is normal? Summer fires? Winter snow? What temperature would surprise you in your environment?

What is the proper temperature for a bath? Scalding? Tepid? It will depend on where you are.

Can you adjust to the ambient climate temperature over time? To what degree? Is it possible to "perform a season" culturally without having the temperature match, as when Californians perform winter?

Humidity makes a huge difference in what temperatures are bearable.

Could you get claustrophobia from being trapped in an air conditioned environment?

Would you wear a hat with a fan, or is that too "dorky"? Would you carry a fan? What about a towel to mop your face?

What temperature are your drinks? Some people in hot places will insist that iced drinks are bad for you.

What temperature does your food arrive at the table at? Should it be piping hot? Should it be iced? Somewhere in between?

Michael Moorcock, Ursula LeGuin, and Ann Leckie all mention circumstances in which people accustomed to extreme cold strip off insulating clothes at temperatures we would consider cold!

Are there swimming pools and ice cream shops? Are there tubes or tunnels between buildings for wintertime?

How conscious are people of the outside temperature? How does one's body configuration affect one's sensitivity to hot or cold weather? How does heat or cold influence one's expectations for things like how easy shoveling is going to be (is hard shoveling a winter or summer thing)?

Where colonizers choose to settle may have a lot to do with the cultural value placed on a particular range of living temperatures. In Hawaii, native peoples tended to live in the mountains...and colonizers wanted to be on the beach.

Thank you to everyone who attended. Today, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at 4pm and we'll be talking with guest author Marion Deeds. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Food Paths, from source to mouth

I formulated this topic as a different way to think about foodstuffs, and possibly an instructive one, when worldbuilding. If you imagine the source of your food in one place, and then trace its path from one stop to the next, from one person to the next, until it gets to your mouth, you  might find some surprising twists and turns, and some surprising people involved. How many stops are there on this path? How many people are contributing to the arrival of your food?

The most minimal path involved would be gathering berries in a forest and putting them straight in your mouth. Nuts would involve cracking them open. The most extensive path would be that of a processed food, which might travel through the hands of a farm worker, a wholesaler, a company to be processed into another form, a shipper to get to another company, another process, etc. until it arrives at a store and you purchase it and take it home.

Even if food is coming from your own garden, other people may be involved because of the process of producing seeds commercially. One's family members will be involved in tending the food at this point.

There's a big difference between the path of a dry food, observes Kate, and one which requires a cold chain (continuously refrigerated). How are liquids like juice, milk, or alcohol processed and transported to you?

The answers to these questions are going to provide you with quite a few worldbuilding ideas, including a sense of what kind of jobs people do in communities, whether traders are present, whether retail is a thing, etc. etc. It also shows you what is involved when people try to trace back along this path to find the source of a food poisoning outbreak.

How often do we see food poisoning in fiction? It has been done before. Star Trek DS9 had an episode where a virus affecting the crew was traced back to a broken replicator.

Kate remarks that disease doesn't always come from what is in the food, but could come from what is not in the food. Scurvy and other vitamin deficiencies forced us to learn things about the relationship between food and disease.

Morgan pointed out that religion can dictate things about the food path, as in the case of halal and kosher food.

More potentially critical questions: how was this food wrapped? What else was processed on the machines where this food was processed? Are contaminants enough to cause an allergy? Are they a violation of religious rules?

To what degree is the form of the food changed as it travels? Is an animal like a chicken or a fish still looking at you? Or has it been plucked or scaled, or had its head removed? Or has it been converted into a "nugget" or a "stick," or a sausage?

I noted that when we spoke with Spencer Ellsworth, he was very clear that processing a deer for consumption took 30-40 hours, so it's important to ask what kind of time is involved in food processing. How do you build a spit or a smokehouse? Who knows how to do this?

We talked about a Top Chef episode where contestants had to deal with a whole animal. There are many parts of an animal we don't think about eating most of the time - tripe, sweetbreads, chitlins, pork feet, tongue, brains, isinglas, etc. A lot of the animal is edible. Che remarked that Anthony Bourdain in Jamaica used a lot of the parts of the animal. Even "non-edibles" are potentially useful or edible, as when bones are used for broth are gelatin.

There is a lot of culture wrapped up in which parts of an animal we consider normal to eat. There is also a lot of culture wrapped up in how we think about the amount we eat, and how much fat we eat. Kate notes that a lot of vitamins are stored in fat and potentially useful. In our previous chat, Spencer had talked about how rendering the fat of an animal was a critical step, as was eating it.

What kind of fats are used in cooking? Olive oil? Butter? Is this difference regional? Does it introduce a totally new food product with a new food path?

When we consider food paths, do we consider the global origins of the food? Do we consider things like the Columbian Exchange, when foods started traveling between Europe and the Americas? Do we consider how the food traveled along the spice road?

"Tea" can be a more flexible fictional drink than coffee because the term loosely describes herbal infusions, and is not restricted to infusions of camellia sinensis.

Che took issue with fictional scenarios that offer a variety of foods, but in an isolated environment with no traders. Take local climates and difficulty of travel into account.

Conjuring food by magic totally erases the food path. Are we creating mass when we do this? Are we transporting it from somewhere? How much energy does it take to conjure food? Should there be an energy cost? Can you sustain yourself on conjured food? Could you be far from home and conjuring food from your own pantry? Kate imagined the cook saying, "Where did everything go?" Morgan imagined someone transporting a chocolate bar from a secret stash (and the apprentice only gets one triangle because their power is less).

How much does a person know about the culture they are transporting food from? Is the trader a representative of that culture, or not? Does the arrival culture miss things about the food that make it less nutritious, like mixing spruce ash with corn meal (for the lime contained) in order to release chemicals? Nixtamalization? Does your food, like guacamole, need to be mixed with another (lemon/lime) to prevent oxidizing?

What are the origins of the medicines used in this place?

Are there food tasters involved? Are there carefully sealed bottles? If the seal is broken, should you eat it?

How much of the food path do you trust?

If you put your characters out in the wilderness, how long does the food supply in that area last? If you're fifty or sixty people eating frogs in a swamp, how long do the frogs last? Do you move, or start farming them?

Why are nomads nomads?

Anne McCaffrey had the coffee-like drink klah in her books, but did a great job of talking about its origins as a bush from which one harvested the bark, etc. She was good with food webs.

If you're working with dinosaur stories, what do you do about food? There are not a lot of preserved dinosaur stomachs. What do they eat? How do they get their food?

I remarked that I was reading a book where an American town had been cut off with a wall, but all the bodegas were stocked. The author didn't mention whether there were food shipments, or checkpoints, which could have affected security.

What are your domestic animals or riding animals eating? A horse is not a motorcycle.

When you are worldbuilding, you need to set up your own limits.

Thank you to everyone who attended! Dive into Worldbuilding meets today, March 20th at 4pm Pacific Daylight Time to talk about Posture. I hope you can join us!


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Kate Johnston and Public Health

I was really happy to have Kate Johnston, an expert on public health issues, on the show to talk about them. Public health is a really important issue to think about in worldbuilding, and I don't see enough of it. As Kate said, not many people think about it on a holistic level, beyond inventing "a gizmo" for a plot device. Often even when a gizmo gets invented, the implications of its invention don't get explored.

She mentioned how in The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, people had a pressure osmosis filter that allowed them to filter urine. Kate asked, "Where is that in the rest of society?" Why wouldn't people filter seawater? Why wouldn't they use the technology to create desalination plants? And what effect would that have on the ocean as it got more saline?

New technologies expand through society. One example she gave was GPS. David Gerrold imagined it, but didn't imagine that you would carry a GPS device in your pocket.

It's very hard to look forward into the future.

Kate talked about John Snow, a doctor who tracked down the source of a cholera epidemic to a public well. He couldn't get people to listen to him, so he removed the well's handle and stopped the epidemic.

Kate also urges us to consider the public health implications of climate change, such as the expansion of malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. She calls the CDC "toothless" on many issues.

Will we have a global medical infrastructure? Might that become so pervasive and important that it could function like a world government?

If you are going to invent a health-related MacGuffin, think about how its invention would resonate. What would be the positive and negative effects? Kate thinks Julie Czerneda and Lois McMaster Bujold do a great job with such questions. Cultural change can come about via medical appliance.

Right now, as Kate puts it, medicine has been "pre-personalized" to white males. Real personalized medicine will expand quality of care to other groups. Kate doesn't think we're going to crack the question of life extension, which will restrict our ability to travel deep into space.

Insulin monitoring tattoos and implants might become possible and widespread, and would affect quality of life.

What happens if the corn belt becomes a savannah due to climate change? How does that change farming? What happens in areas where the land is shrinking? Stephen Baxter took on these questions in Flood. Marginalized people don't have the ability to move to another house. How do you move a huge population while keeping them healthy and safe?

The CDC and FEMA have a medical stockpile for emergencies that they keep rotated so it can be moved out quickly... but we have never used it.

We also spoke about vaccinations. Right now we are starting to have vaccines for types of cancer. Will we get them for other things? What if there were a vaccine for Alzheimers? Who gets such a vaccine? How do they pay for it? And what happens then, if people aren't dying?

DNA is a lot more complex than people thought, especially as it's portrayed in elementary genetics. Kate says it's not "the magic LEGO block." We know that a child's DNA changes the DNA of the mother. We're also learning about epigenetics, and the interface between body, mind, and environment.

You could write a story about whether you get vaccinated or not. Would a person skirt regulations ot save their own child?

We may learn to regrow teeth and restore bone mineralization due to research done for the space program. The space program has had an enormous influence on society because of the larger implications of innovations made for space, like velcro, synthetic motor oil, and anti-vibration mechanisms. You have to be very creative when you can only use one size bolt because you only have one wrench. That last part is changing a bit because of 3D printing technology.

Medical technology is already printing tissue. What will we achieve in building on this?

We've already done things like add micronutrients to bread and milk. This leads to people thinking you don't get scurvy any more because people are just better, when in fact they are getting necessary nutrition from things like Wonder Bread.

Accessibility to medical treatments is a huge issue in our world, and would be in other worlds also.

The curb cuts mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act benefit everyone, not just the disabled.

What are the consequences of gene editing by CRISPR? People are already self-injecting this, performing dangerous experiments on themselves.

Things that do harm are easy to access. Things that help are harder to access.

When Craig Venter decoded his own genome, it was considered an enormous accomplishment. Now, though, you can get your DNA analyzed by mail.

Sometimes the progress of technology has randomness built in, as when clocks started all going "clockwise" simply because that became the trend in their manufacture. There was a time when you could find cars with doors that opened toward the front (these were called "suicide doors" for a reason). 8-track tapes were more effective than VHS tapes, but didn't end up being used widely enough to be maintainable.

There is a trend toward online psychotherapy. This is very helpful because of the difficulty of doctor access in small towns and rural areas. Morgan told us how far she lives from certain services, six miles from "the village" and ten miles from Ithaca.

We talked about vectors, or how diseases spread. This is a question often ignored by lawmakers. Kate says that people who have not grown up around animals do stupid things like kiss a chicken and get salmonella. She mentioned the Oregon woman who got cattle worms in her eye. She encourages more people to write SF/F about parasites, because "we haven't had a good parasite since Alien."

When refugees show up in a place, what kind of diseases do they carry?

We are living in the midst of a microbe world we hardly know anything about.

Why couldn't you have multiple elective surgeries at once, to save money on anesthesia?

A new trend in operating rooms is for the doctors to write their specialties on their hats so that everyone knows who the anesthesiologist is.

Kate said that if you want to look at an example of actual cooperation under pressure, you should look at an emergency room. She and I both recommend this article, which talks about very effective emergency room management during the shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada.

It's worth giving some thought to how communication works in a medical setting.

Kate suggests a thought experiment, where we imagine that health care providers are all fully staffed to the level they need to provide good care. What kind of economic effects would that have?

What is the status of doctors and nurses in a society? Differences there can impede communication and cause harm in our world; what would happen in a fictional situation? How would doctors deal with marginalization, or with trans identity? There are both social and physical aspects to these questions which can have dire impact on individuals. Who falls through the cracks?

Where is birth control in the future? Are women still denied tubal ligations in the name of future fertility they might not want? Are there condoms in the future?

What provisions are made for mental health? Who is providing help during the 2am-5am period when mental health crises are most common?

Would there be side effects to controlled breeding in humans the way there are in dog breeds?

What will the next Great Death be? The black plague was catastrophic, but we haven't had a serious epidemic in a long time, with the exceptions of the 1918 flu and the AIDS epidemic.

The current 2018 flu is killing a lot of people, particularly people with less health support.

My heartfelt thanks to Kate for coming on the show to discuss these important topics. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, March 13th at 4pm Pacific Daylight Time to discuss Personal Weapons. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Money Manners

This topic was suggested by a friend of my son's who mentioned it at a birthday party, and it's one that has a surprisingly big role in our lives: Who gets to pay for whom and when?

Morgan told us about a Passover where she went to First Night from a convention with a group that was about a third Jewish. She said there were two guys who were dueling over who would pay, to the extent of trying moves like, "Look over there!"

In East Asian and South Asian cultures, there is status associated with paying the check. There may also be an attendant infantilization of someone who lets their portion be paid for by someone else.

Kat mentioned watching uncles in a Chinese-American family fight for the check, slipping the credit card to the waiter, but trying to hide it - or trying to grab the binder, or even leaping across the table.

There are other problems with money manners. How do you tell a friend that you can't go out for expensive food? Do social pressures put you in a position of spending money you don't have?

Talking about money is very fraught, connected with personal pride and public shame.

There are a lot of myths about poor people, most of which are held and maintained by rich people. If you are a person who is less well off, how you talk about money may reveal the status you came from. If you are poor, does it make you more honest about your financial needs and situation? It might. People will try to figure out the conditions of an invitation in advance.

It's really important to follow through when you promise to pay for something, because otherwise you can cause someone enormous trouble. If you promise to pay, other people who might do the same will think it's taken care of, and won't know to offer help if you back out.

People are often embarrassed to ask for help. GoFundMe is a help in addressing this problem.

People often avoid talking about how much they earn. However, transparency about salaries actually can help people seek justice with an employer, and the company only benefits from encouraging silence on the topic.

There is a performative expectation for poverty. Poor people are expected to look poor, act poor, not have nice stuff, etc. and they can get jumped on if other perceive them as having something they "shouldn't." The internet has seen a lot of criticism of poor people for having cell phones as a sign of unwarranted luxury... but are they really a luxury, or a necessity, in our world?

Money is often used as a way to control people. One of the problems with charity is that it so often comes with strings attached, i.e. with expectations of particular behavior.

Enacting being well off can become very important for your safety, and for you to achieve goals that will allow you to progress toward actually being well off. Someone who is poor will want to have a nice outfit that they can wear for job interviews, for example, or for interactions with banks.

Well-compensated white cis men sometimes cultivate "louche fashion," or the "adolescent slacker look," where they say they don't need a suit. This is only achievable because of their level of money. Kat observed that you can't buy yourself into this class level.

One example of performing higher class is "whistling Vivaldi," which is what one black man did to signal higher class membership for his own safety.

If you are hosting a party, what are you expected to provide, and how much? Are there birthday party rules? Is the honoree's part of the meal divided among the others? What about their partner? Or does the host have to pay for everything? A lot depends on the context and the identity of the guests.

When we go out to dinner, do we pay for what we consume, or do we divide the bill equally? Do you restrain what you order out of politeness for the person who is paying? I got taught about this early when I wanted a really expensive thing from the menu for my birthday dinner and was told I couldn't have it because that would be rude to my grandmother.

Tipping arguments are a thing, also. What happens when the person who grabs the check is a bad tipper? Would you leave money on the table? Is there a worry that someone might pick it up?

There are a lot of potential conflicts on money manners in the context of immigrant narratives, such as the collision of cultures when you take a partner to visit your parents.

What are host and hostess gifts? What is appropriate to give when you go to visit someone? Is there an expectation of reciprocity? Does gift-giving escalate? How can you stop the escalation before it hurts you financially?

When they know that some guests are facing an economic disparity, some people will write "our treat" on an invitation to prevent people from hesitating to attend.

What is reciprocity? How strict is it? Can we use an equivalence of things other than money? Is it acceptable to ask someone for service?

Strict financial reciprocity doesn't allow for changes in a person's financial status over time and could put strain on a friend relationship. Morgan said that in a similar situation her attitude is "you can accept us paying for your dinner so we can spend time together."

In US mainstream culture, males are often defined by their work and their salary. Kat explained that subcultures are more sued to fluctuations in relative prosperity. There is subtle coding of information in how people talk about it. "Joe's going to be short this month, so..."

On some level, we expect people to be employed and have comfort. You could write a story about someone trying to conceal that they are lacking employment and comfort. Musicians are open about asking if they have gigs. Writers expect everyone to be poor. Consultants might say that they got a big gig and so are able to pay back.

Sometimes you have to talk explicitly about money in order to be considerate of people's needs.

Lois McMaster Bujold's work deals with class and prosperity.

What do you do when you get invited to a house with servants? Do you read Miss Manners? Who is Miss Manners (in this world, or in yours)? How does she get her knowledge? Why is she licensed to reveal it? Are people willing to pay for the labor of someone to explain the manners of the upper class? Is that explaining allowed?

Classic stories like The Rivals by Richard Sheridan and The Canterbury Tales have characters (Mrs. Malaprop, the Nun) who are distinguished by their desire to emulate (badly or well) the manners of the upper classes.

The Canterbury Tales contains a money situation where the people on the pilgrimage have to promise to tell a story or else pay for meals for the entire party at their next stop.

We talked about an anti-cell phone rule some people use to keep dinners uninterrupted, which says that if you look at your cell phone during dinner, you pay for dinner. This is unfair to people who might have legitimate reasons to look at the phone. Are you a physician on call, or on call at work? Do you have kids with possible emergencies? Are you a caretaker of parents?

The forfeits game is fun when it's fair.

What is the monetary value of stories? Historically you would have itinerant storytellers getting hosted by a community. Paying for emotional labor is not new. We suffer partly because we have Puritan rules for what is worth money.

Are elders expected to pay, or are they to be treated to a meal? Are the young people in the middle paying? Who is paying and why?

Is there a border where you are interacting with different sets of people? It could be a physical border, or a chronological one such as when one becomes an adult. The person transitioning to adulthood is generally aware that they are making the transition. Is it a question of family hierarchy where someone dies and now you are the eldest with attendant responsibilities?

When family is staying with you, do they reciprocally take you out to dinner once?

Are you expected to feed guests at your home? Are you expected to feed family members in your home?

If X person is coming and they will want to pay for a meal, do you need to make covert arrangements with the people involved to make sure everyone subtly allows to happen as if it was unintentional?

If people bring food with them, is it communal, or is it for them alone?

Can you choose what you get to eat if someone else is buying?

How do you get people to let you pay for things they need, like an investment in education, etc.? Have you established trust that there are no strings or behavioral requirements?

Can you think of a parent or family member as making an investment in you? Can you say, "bank or me: I'll give you better terms"?

If you are having a large event like a wedding, do you have to negotiate every expense, or is there a total budget within which you can make your own decisions?

Can a group of friends have a money-pooling system that allows people to take turns taking advantage of the entire pool? This sometimes happens in Chinese-American communities. There are plenty of non-mainstream ways of handling capital needs.

Thanks to everyone who attended for this fascinating discussion. Today at 4pm Pacific we'll be meeting to discuss Temperature Control. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Good and Bad Luck

I proposed this topic because of all the various different things we associate with luck. Is luck a lady? Is it personified? Is it held in objects like rabbits' feet or horseshoes hung above doors?

Luck is sometimes related to trickster deities, or to folk practices intended to influence luck in the context of religion, like relics, etc. Some religions feel that there is no such thing as luck, only circumstances brought on by moral or immoral conduct. Others believe in propitiation of deities or somehow creating auspicious circumstances.

Khaalidah urged us to define luck, which was a very good idea. Our general consensus was that it was about a preponderance of events going in your favor or not (for good and bad luck). It could also be called "statistically unlikely streaks of events."

Cliff mentioned that in Pratchett's Ringworld, the luck of a single character, Teela Brown, influenced the entire world. Over time, the significance of that changed such that what was good for her and what was good for the whole world was not necessarily the same.

Some people like to invoke "bad luck" as a way of minimizing or negating their own responsibility for events.

Do people believe in luck or destiny? Can you believe in both?

In Greek mythology, you sometimes see people who are predestined to have bad luck.

People who believe in personal control often downplay luck. But perhaps having good luck is about being able to see opportunities. Humans like randomness to look like our expectation of randomness, but a string of similar events can be random even though it doesn't look that way.

Islam maintains that some things that will happen are already written. It's one of the things that leads to religious discussions of free will.

Are the things that happen to you in your life, like whether you are rich or poor, which spouse you meet, etc. luck, or are they destiny?

Wikipedia says that "luck" means a string of notably positive or negative events, and that it can be ascribed to the operation of deities.

What does luck look like in secondary world fiction, or in far future science fiction? Do people maintain their talismanic luck objects and rituals? Battlestar Galactica portrayed such a ritual when pilots touched a photo before taking off, mimicking the historical behavior of pilots in the world wars.

What characters think of as luck may not match the author's view of luck.

Absurd levels of luck can be used for comedy.

Pratchett asked what good luck would be for a demon.

We talked about the role of authors in establishing good or bad luck for a character. There's a common view that it's all right to have the bad guys get good luck, but the good guys should not be helped by circumstance. Kat noted that this is a preference of "Western rational" perspective. Bad luck is seen as a test of character for protagonists.

People of privilege often have their paths paved for them, but won't acknowledge this as luck.

Is it good luck if a flying bird poops on you? What if you were mauled by a tiger at home, or a dinosaur? We agreed that if you cloned a dinosaur and it mauled you, that was your destiny.

There are a lot of superstitions in the West, like bad luck that can come from sidewalk cracks, ladders, black cats, broken mirrors, etc. Salt is considered good luck if you throw it over your shoulder. Spitting over your shoulder can also be good luck.

What is the line between good etiquette and superstition?

Kat told us about some of the things she had perceived as a child to be bad luck (imagining that a flying pot might come and smack you in the head if you did wrong). Shaking your foot/leg at the table, or making a walrus face with chopsticks, or mishandling chopsticks. She is not sure whether these ideas have any connection to a Japanese concept of bad luck.

If you create a secondary world and don't consider issues of luck, it's a missed opportunity.

Evil eye is a malediction that causes bad luck.

Naming practices have often been aimed at influencing luck. Sometimes children have been given undesirable names to keep bad luck away. Other times you get names like "Good luck Jonathan" in Africa.

Are there lucky days? Lucky directions?

Do you have your characters explain their beliefs about luck? Not necessarily.

When you see a correlation, does that mean causation?

We mentioned all the stories where a child ends up with a lucky object, like Dumbo and the magic feather, and then is shown that they don't really need it in order to accomplish what they were doing.

We felt that if you are pessimistic, you might miss seeing opportunities because you might not be looking for them. Similarly, if you are optimistic, you might be more likely to be looking out for, and see, opportunities.

Openness to new information might be considered good luck.

When people have a lot of good luck, they develop an expectation of the beneficence of the universe. This can be a character issue.

Douglas Adams loved creating circumstances of mundane people experiencing improbable events.

I asked people about stories they had worked on which might have featured luck.

Kat said that for her it was mostly in the case of a character pondering the freak occurrences of life, such as "what if we hadn't met?" etc.

Morgan told us her kid had had an idea of an island that you can't get to deliberately, but only by luck.

Cliff said his protagonist was predisposed to think about luck, and does things unconsciously to keep good luck.

Kat told us she's predisposed to avoid doing things in fours, even cutting sandwiches into pieces.

In Japanese, the number 9 is associated with suffering because of a pronunciation similarity.

13 is bad luck in the West.

If you are a member of a vulnerable population, you might take care and do safety practices that others might consider paranoid.

Do we avoid certain things as a cultural practice?

So we have language habits that refer to deities we don't believe in?

Thank you all for participating and bringing up so many interesting questions. Dive into Worldbuilding meets today at 4pm Pacific to talk about Food Production.


from Kate:
   “This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

 “Mere existence is already the result of incredible luck. Such was the case on Earth in the past, and such has always been the case in this cruel universe. But at some point, humanity began to develop the illusion that they’re entitled to life, that life can be taken for granted. This is the fundamental reason for your defeat. The flag of evolution will be raised once again on this world, and you will now fight for your survival. I hope everyone present will be among the fifty million survivors at the end. I hope that you will eat food, and not be eaten by food.”
“Ahhhhhhh—” A woman in the crowd near Cheng Xin screamed, slicing apart the silence like a sharp blade. But a deathlike hush immediately swallowed her scream."
"Death's End" by Cixin Liu
Translated by Ken Liu
Series: Three Body, Book 3
This is related to the OCD bread matching thing from earlier in the week, Kat
I think one of the things we tend to forget is that we're talking about writing, not necessarily our personal beliefs about things, but --how we are going to use said belief systems in our worldbuilding--. I don't believe a certain colour of cat means anything at all, but I am certainly willing to play with other people's beliefs or not in superstition in my writing. 
I am currently running a series of discussions on my page about how "what you believe" is not necessarily the center of the conversation being held. When we are talking about abortion policy and I say it's about national policy, I don't care if you've had one or not, I don't care what your God thinks about it, I want to talk about how policy affects the nation, and what we can do about THAT. Does that make sense?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


This week's topic was inspired by our brief chat about the character Kalr 5 in Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword, who is a total connoisseur of dishes. They feature in Alice in Wonderland, and they get their own special scene in The Hobbit. But there's a lot more to think about here.

Kat pointed out that chopsticks were designed to be used with particular types of dishes - bowls, which gather the food, or dishes with crannies.

Knives don't work well with bowls.

Do you lift your bowls? Western dishes, with wide rims, are awkward to drink from.

I mentioned trenchers, the pieces of bread that were often used as dishes in the Middle Ages. They were not the same as bread bowls. They were sometimes eaten with sauce at the end of the meal, but at other times were given to the poor.

Kat told us about pies with hot water crusts, which were used so you could hold stew without a dish, and then the crust was broken down for use as a thickening agent the following day. These were molded from the inside. Pasties and hand pies are made with the same goal - to avoid dishes. So are sandwiches, and biodegradable food wrappers like leaves and rice.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had a scene where Willy Wonka drinks chocolate from a cup and then eats the cup. Cliff noted that this was key to the worldbuilding in the movie, establishing not only that most things were edible, but that totally unexpected things could happen in the factory.

There are many religious rules surrounding dishes. In Judaism, one is expected to have four sets of dishes. One for dairy, one for meat, on regular occasions, and then separate meat and dairy plates for Passover as well. The strictness of the rule varies among Jewish groups. Synagogues have utensils of different types.

Kat brought up the question of disposable or "lesser" dishes for unworthy people. This was something Ann Leckie used in her book as well, since we saw Kalr 5 judiciously deciding when to bring out the best dishes for a guest.

How do you handle dishes after you've eaten? Recycle them? Wash them? If they are washed, who washes them? Do you have access to water? The desire for easy cleanup can lead to disposable dish use.

In American tradition one generally had two sets of dishes, one "China" and one every day. Sometimes (as at my house) there is a special set of Christmas dishes, which we use at Christmastime when family is in town. There is also the tradition of registering for a wedding, where the couple to be married goes out and selects a set (or two) of dishes for their home, and registers their choice with the store, and then people who are invited to the wedding can go to the store and buy a piece (or more) of the set to give to the couple on their wedding day.

In some cultures, such as Japan, everything is plated before serving. Only some specific dishes are expected to appear in a communal dish.

One of our discussants remembered a science fiction story where eating was considered a private and slightly disgusting thing to do.

Dishes can be quite specific to the foods they are intended for, such as cake plates, butter dishes, or cake tier stands.

One does not put cereal in a ramen bowl!

There are also sometimes special sets of unbreakable dishes for babies. Melamine ware is becoming quite common, but appeared at least as early as the 1970's with "Make-a-Plate" where you could draw a design on your own dish.

Kat notes that she drinks different kinds of tea from different kinds of cups. Mugs are for black tea and green tea takes no handle.

Depending on how they are made, dishes can contain lead. This is true of ceramics and cut glass lead crystal (so don't leave your wine in the lead crystal decanter for a long time!).

Pottery and dishes are often distinct in style to particular artists. Do you recognize the maker? If you don't know the maker, are you not good enough socially to partake in the meal?

Can you tell if someone approves of you by which dishes they bring out when you visit? Do the doilies come out?

There are also commemorative dishes and collectors' dishes.

You might own an heirloom plate for ritual purposes, such as a seder plate or a kiddish cup. There is also the chalice used for mass. The Holy Grail was a dish... what would be an appropriate goblet for Jesus? That became a pretty important question in Indiana Jones.

Kat told us about juubako, a three-tiered ritual container for New Year's food (osechi).

In America (and elsewhere in Western cultures), our plates tend to match and come in sets. Whole companies are organized around completing those sets and replacing broken dishes so they match.

In Japan, each person has a different rice bowl. The colors of the food are suppose to complement the dish they come in. If a dish, such as a bowl, is intended to be held in the hand, it will have a foot. There's a special way to hold them; you are not supposed to hook your thumb over the edge of the bowl. The tea ceremony is an extraordinarily disciplined example of a more general cultural view on how bowls should be used.

In France, hot chocolate can be served in bowls. I have a set of hot chocolate bowls with "ears" that allow you to pick them up and drink from them.

Place setting rules can be very complex and even cause anxiety (especially for people aspiring to join upper classes who can afford complex place settings). In France, I've seen the fork on the left and the knife on the right, but the spoon going across the top. With chopsticks, you lay them across the place setting so they don't point at people. There can be tension in a diaspora (such as the Japanese) between old and new ways of setting the table.

In the age of Japanese internment, there were cases of families being evicted and having to get rid of their old things, and sometimes burying their dishes.

Do you have a dishwashing machine? What does that say about you? Are your dishes able to be put in a dishwasher? Older Japanese dishes tend not to be dishwasher-safe.

The Trail of Tears also has terrible stories of people having to leave behind important household wares when they were evicted from their homes.

In a role-playing game, which dishes are you carrying with you? Do you need to purify water to avoid disease? How do you do that? Do you carry water bottles?

Are there sippy-cups or special cups for babies?

Can you use dishes in microgravity?

What dishes would an alien use?

Thanks to everyone who participated in this discussion. This week we meet today, Tuesday, February 20th, with guest Kate Johnston who will be sharing her expertise in Public Health. I hope you can join us!


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Ann Leckie and the Imperial Radch Trilogy

It was such a pleasure to have Ann Leckie come on the show! Her series is one of my favorites, and I was really looking forward to getting her behind-the-scenes insights.

The first thing I asked her was how to pronounce "Radch." Her answer was great - she pronounces it with an affricate, but believes that since the region is so large and has so many different language groups, any way you pronounce it is probably considered correct somewhere in the Radch. So, effectively, say it as you'd like.

I asked her about her process in designing this universe. She said it was a "long and piecemeal" process, where she'd find interesting ideas and ask herself, "How would that fit?" She believes there's no such thing as a monoculture, so every group she represented had to be three-dimensional. She estimates the design process for the Radch universe took ten years at least.

The character of Breq was one of the first pieces of this universe. She imagined a character with multiple bodies, and a character who was a starship. She spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to represent the required head-hopping in her narrative, and finally decided to do it in the simplest way possible.

I asked her about Breq and her emotions, because the text always depicts her as having emotions, but a lot of readers have responded by calling her a "soulless machine." Ann said that she always intended her to be deeply emotional, but a person who would never knowing show those emotions to others. She had to depict Breq's emotions a bit through other characters' reactions and hope that people would become accustomed to Breq's dry delivery. She worked very hard to get those emotions on the page without having Breq say anything about it. She is a character with rigid self-control and extreme competence. If she were to show her emotional states, it would be much easier to take advantage of her.

People who are not in positions of power can't let their feelings out because it might be dangerous to them. They end up super-controlled, but when they really need to say things they tend to get understated and sideways about it. Kat remarked that in Japanese, things get implied and said in interstices, so Breq's expression felt very real to her, as if she had "emotional continence," i.e. control over when she emits emotion and when she doesn't. In the US we tend to say we want free expression, but only the powerful and the privileged can actually achieve this.

Breq is under the control of others, but also in control of many people. One of Ann's goals was to show that you can be oppressed and also be an oppressor.

I asked Ann how she designs her character voices, and she laughed. She tries to keep the voices distinct, but says, "I see the character, and I try and hear them."

I asked when she decided to use the pronoun "she" for all the characters referred to in the Radchaai language. Ann explained that her first NaNoWriMo novel, which she called "really bad," assigned binary genders, and she was really unhappy with the result. She wanted do depict a situation where people really didn't care, but couldn't figure out how to deal with it. She tried doing a short story that used all masculine pronouns, but wasn't exactly happy with that either. Then she thought, "What about 'she'?" She imagined it would sound funny, but figured that the worst that could happen would be that she wouldn't like it, and she could put it in a folder. However, "The more that I tried it, the more that I liked it."

Ann mentioned how LeGuin had made the choice to use mostly masculine pronouns in The Left Hand of Darkness, but had regretted it in some respects and later had experimented with feminine pronouns in a short story.

She said that she expected Ancillary Justice was unsellable, but, she says, "You send stuff out. Rejecting it is not your job." An agent said he "wasn't too sure about the pronoun thing," and Ann worried that she would be losing her chance at representation, but she'd decided before she started the process of agent-hunting that the pronoun question would be a deal-breaker. She sent him a five thousand word explanation for why the pronouns were important, and he said, "OK." Then the editor at first said the first chapter had issues, but later decided it was "fine." The moral, Ann says, is that it's okay to fight for something in your work!

I asked her when she made her decisions about portraying the skin color of the people in the Radch. She said this was an early conscious decision. Far future space opera always seemed exceedingly white, so she thought, "I may as well go completely the other way." She made a similar deliberate decision in depicting Station Administrator Celar. Station Administrator Celar is fat, and "the hottest thing going." Standards of beauty are interesting, because people talk like they are biologically ordained, but it's mostly culture.

I asked Ann how she chose tea as the main drink. She said it was partly because she loves tea, and partly because C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series had used tea. Book two then ended up with "lots and lots of tea," and a tea plantation. She did research to decide what kind of tea it was. She says having a good sensory feel of what you're writing helps it come across on the page. One of the side effects has been that people bring her tea. They always seem uncertain about whether she will like their gift tea, but as Ann says, "I've had the kind of tea I like." She wants to try the kind of tea other people like.

I asked her about whether she felt pressure to raise the stakes when she was writing sequels to Ancillary Justice. Ann explains that you don't have to up the stakes, just change them. After Ancillary Justice, the stakes weren't going to get higher. So she left the larger stakes the same, and found different interesting stakes at the lower level. "I kind of like that more personal level." She mentioned how in Patrick O'Brien naval adventures, there's lots of waiting for battles, and in those periods, lots of personal stuff plays out.

We spoke about the character Kalr 5, and how she got developed. Ann said that Kalr 5 needed business to perform, and reasons to go from one place to another, so Ann sent her after dishes, and suddenly her character became a connoisseur of teacups. The concept grew even further at the moment she actually gets a chance to bring out the real good dishes. Some people really like dishes! Kat said she loved the tea and dishes, in part because of the Japanese view on dishes, where there are seasonal dishes, and dishes are supposed to match or complement food colors.

I also asked Ann about the gloves. Ann said that part of it came in really early - people were wearing gloves - and she had to retcon a reason for it. Why do we all wear pants and not skirts? We used to.

When something has significance in one place, it generally should have significance everywhere.

The idea that hands were yucky or inappropriate and had to be covered by gloves made sense because of the way we will sometimes label things yucky and needing to be covered up, as when some cultures (like the US) demand that shoes be worn all the time because feet are dirty.

What you have to cover is very cultural. Hands are about the dirtiest thing on us!

We then talked about the translation problem, and Ann's depiction of the Radchaai language vs. the other languages in the books. Breq's difficulty with other languages is one of the most fascinating parts of the story for me (yay, language geekery!). The other languages are useful because having them allows you to get perspective on what the Radchaai language is doing with its pronouns. Also, when English speakers try to speak languages with gendered nouns, they will often forget the gender of nouns. Hungarian doesn't have gendered pronouns for people, so Hungarian speakers can forget to gender pronouns when using English. Mandarin also has a personal pronoun which does not vary in sound for male and female. Even though currently there are radicals used in the written form to indicate male, female, or neutral, that wasn't true historically.

Any time you have a grammatical distinction in one language that isn't used in another language, translating between them will be hard. Japanese recognizes birth order - it's marked in the lexicon, where there are different words for older brother and younger brother, older sister and younger sister. Kat told us a story about how she'd been using the words for older siblings as though they were unmarked (i.e. just meant sibling), and had her mother ask her whether all of her friends were younger siblings (they weren't).

Translating becomes an issue when a category must be specified in the second language that doesn't exist in the first language.

Translating these books, Ann says, is very tricky.

Ann, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your insights about these wonderful books. Thanks also to everyone who attended.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Flying Things That Are Not Birds

This was the hangout where we took on things that glide, fly, and swim-in-flying-ways, but which are not birds. Deborah started out by telling us about a story she'd written where frogs took over a bunch of ecological niches that had been taken by other species on Earth, including birds. There were song frogs, etc, and there was a lot of moisture in the environment.

Many insects fly. I mentioned how much I'd enjoyed the flying of the female ants in A Bug's Life. Termites also fly (and I hate when I see a swarm of them near my house!).

One of the major features of Austin, Texas, is the twilight flight of bats, which is apparently "auditorily fascinating and disconcerting."

Cliff mentioned dinosaur flyers like the pteranodons and pterodactyls. I mentioned quetzalcoatlus, which was quite enormous and weighed about 130 pounds.

Kat mentioned Mothra.

Mary Anne Mohanraj has written about humans who can fly. For humans to fly as birds do, we noted, they would need a very large keelbone (chest bone) and flight muscles connected to it. This would give you a hugely projecting chest and you'd have to sacrifice the normal functioning of your arms.

Cliff mentioned a species that was invented for the convention called CONTACT: Cultures of the Imagination. It was the primary intelligent species on the planet Epona.

Flying non-birds also include flying squirrels, gliding lizards.

We noted that penguins fly, but not in air. Most birds use foot power to get thrust underwater, but penguins use their wings more. In a very dense atmosphere, a flyer would be more bullet-shaped with smaller wings, much as penguins are on Earth.

We asked what kind of body shape would evolve in lesser gravity, or in microgravity.

I mentioned the book Below the Root by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, which featured humans who had colonized a distant planet with lower gravity, and lived in the trees, where they climbed upwards and glided downward with special clothing (called shubas). These were not entirely like wing suits for indoor skydiving.

Fran Wilde has also written about humans who can fly.

Superheroes generally fly the way we do in dreams, in a sort of telekinetic flight mode. Superman apparently started out just as a very good jumper, but evolved over time into a flyer. Then there are the suit flyers like Iron Man and War Machine, etc.

Douglas Adams suggested one should throw oneself at the ground and miss.

We all agreed there should be more bat stories.

Historically, there have been many instances of animals having wings added to make them mythological. This includes bulls, horses, and people. Quetzalcoatl was a snake with wings. There are mythological creatures with wings in the movie Coco. There is also the story of Icarus. Kat told us how she had retold this myth in a social-justice aware way.

Wings tend to represent freedom.

I got caught imagining that we didn't give things insect wings, but of course had forgotten about FAIRIES (oops). Fairies generally have insect wings of various varieties (I see dragonfly or butterfly most often).

Swans' wings and eagles' wings tend to be used symbolically.

Peacocks are scary when they fly (some of us agreed).

Cherubim and Seraphim can be scary, since they are made of wings and fire.

The Balrog was depicted in the Lord of the Rings movie as having bat wings. Fluffy eagle or swan wings tend to be depicted as good, while leathery wings are depicted as bad.

Humans have sometimes flown on brooms or carpets in stories. We briefly tried to consider reasons why brooms would be the vehicle of choice for witches (is it just that they're associated with women? Is it that they are phallic?) Here's a fascinating article on the subject (NSFW).

Kat told us about a friend of hers who is a bat rescuer. She always felt fond of bats because the Japanese word komori sounded like "child-minding." She imagined a sort of protective bat who keeps mosquitoes away.

We talked briefly about drone flight. Our ability to film things from a flying drone is going to change drastically how we look at things. Eagles are sometimes used to take down drones so they don't interfere with firefighting.

Thanks to everyone who participated! This week we will meet on Tuesday, February 6th at 4pm Pacific.


Monday, January 22, 2018

Birds (Parts 1 and 2)

We had two weeks of discussion about birds, so I thought I'd summarize them both in the same report. Part 1 starts with a discussion of pet birds and how to care for them, and then expands from there; Part 2 focuses on the relationship between birds and dinosaurs and discusses birding and birds of the world.

Parrots need unfiltered sunshine, ideally outdoor if it's not cold. This is why you can get "avian lightbulbs for indoor birds. Birds also need calcium, from cuttle bones or from eggshell powder. Equatorial parrots get jet lag if they don't have 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness.

Parrots also need a flock. They're sad by themselves, unless their owners spend quality time with them. They can develop OCD and pluck their own feathers. Some more info on parrots.

Some parrots have taken up residence in cities like San Francisco.

Birds can be territorial. They communicate through calls, body language, and biting. People often misinterpret their biting. When they are content they grind their beaks (certain parts of the beak keep growing and need to be ground down). When they fluff or preen it means they feel safe.

Cliff noted that birds are dinosaur descendants, and Kimberly mentioned how scientists had turned off a beak gene in a chicken and it had developed a dinosaur-like snout with tiny teeth. Brian said you can weight chickens so they walk like a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Corvids (crows and ravens) are what dinosaur evolved intelligence would be like. They can plan for the future.

Birds express themselves differently from mammals because they don't sue facial expressions. The porgs of Star Wars are mammalized puffins... basically puffins, because they couldn't be shooed off the island, with their faces altered so they would have facial expressions. If you wanted to have interesting aliens in a secondary world, you could give them avian communication strategies.

One needs to keep pet birds intellectually engaged. They can get bored easily. Their sexual behaviors can be a problem because they can cause aggression.

Kat asked about birds in space. It could be a problem for birds to grasp with their feet and sleep if gravity could not help them keep hold. They apparently also need gravity to swallow.

Parrots use their feet as hands and their beak like a thumb. They are good climbers because two of their toes point forward and two backward.

Emus shed feathers when they are stressed, as in a fight or flight scenario. Kat told us that hand-feeding emus is terrifying.

Good and bad luck are often associated with birds. There are many mythical birds across cultures, like the Roc and the Phoenix and the Firebird.

Birds can imitate human language, and the lyrebird can imitate almost any sound. I report on Birds: Part 2 below the video.

Part 2:
We started out this session by having Brian tell us about birding. You basically go out and look at birds. Many people get very serious about collecting and cataloguing sightings over the course of their lives, and can have seen thousands.

A new piece of DNA research has determined that falcons aren't classed with hawks and raptors any more, but are closer to parrots.

Humans love categorizing things, so we created the idea of species. Species is something of an artificial category, though. Usually people have said two different species can't produce viable offspring, but this isn't true. There's such a thing as a "ring species." A group of arctic gulls can reproduce with those to the west of them, but not with those to the east, in a ring all the way around the pole.

Darwin studied the speciation of finches in the Galapagos islands.

Dinosaurs are birds. When I was a kid, archaeopteryx was considered the single "bird dinosaur," but now a great many (if not most) of them are considered to have ben feathered.

In the old model of animal classes, there were amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. In the new model, reptiles break into snake/lizard, bird, and turtle/crocodile groups.

The more we learn, the more we have to re-classify and change things.

In the 1880s, there were "dinosaur wars" where dinosaur hunters in Utah tried to sabotage each other.

The idea of "cold-blooded" vs. "warm-blooded" has been broken down at this point. There are many ways in which organisms can regulate their body temperature. Feathers were an early adaptation to control body temperature. But since they also assisted with things like jumping out of trees, it became possible for them to adapt into flight feathers.

Roadrunners jump down onto their prey.

Most of the feathers on any given bird are not flight feathers, but are for heat insulation.

Even though many birds fly, they will avoid flying if they can, because it's so energy-intensive. If birds end up on an island with no predators, they will stop flying.

Other things also fly - and we decided to talk about them the following week. This group includes bats, insects, and three-foot dragonflies. In a high-oxygen environment, insects can grow to be very large.

I recommended the David Attenborough series of videos The Life of Birds (it's amazing).

Cliff recommended the book "After Man" by MacDougal and Dixon, and the related video series "The Future is Wild." One of its ideas was that penguins would fill niches that had earlier been filled by other types of animals.

Penguins carry their knees internally. They can take over huts and live in them. Penguin movement is a lot like flying, but their medium is not air. They can play in bow waves like dolphins.

Rheas, cassowaries, ostriches, and emus are among the large flightless birds of the world. Emus once won a land war with armed humans in Australia.

We asked, given that flight and large brains are both energy intensive, how it would be plausible to create an intelligent/sapient avian species. Kate said they would have to have a really abundant food source that they can't easily run out of. Intelligence is relatively common in omnivores...and some birds are omnivores. Often, we don't really know everything a bird eats. Even hummingbirds eat 25% insects. Birds' habit of scattering seeds is good for the propagation of trees, so they could easily be imagined as agrarian.

Even though we think of birds as oviparous, some of them have pouches and carry their babies while flying, and others carry their babies on their backs, particularly the aquatic birds who must protect their babies from becoming too wet when their feathers are still downy.

Ostriches have lots of babies, as many as 20 chicks at a time, but many of them die and some of them make it. Other birds do more to care for their babies. Quail will have community guarding and lookout birds to protect their nests on the ground.

Measuring the length of bills is hard because it's hard to tell where the bill ends and the skull begins. Bills were often measured from tip to nostrils, which made Kiwi birds the bird with the shortest bill, because their nostrils are at the tip of the bill. They have quite an advanced sense of smell.

Tomorrow, we'll be joined by author Ann Leckie who will be talking about her Imperial Radch novels with us at 4pm Pacific. I hope you can make it!