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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.