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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!