Friday, August 29, 2014

Songs and Habits

I sing my daughter a handful of bedtime songs some nights (when she doesn't just kick me out).
I also read nonfiction self-help books from time to time.  Consider this my review of the ones that have seemed useful.  Mediated through bedtime songs.

I can't go straight from verse 1 / chorus to verse 2 of one of the songs I sing.  There's a mental blank.  After verse 1 / chorus, I quietly cycle through the openings to verse 4 and verse 3, landing on verse 2, and start singing.

This is a habit.  It's part of the cue/routine/reward habit cycle that Charles Duhigg outlines in the The Power of Habit.

If I wanted to, I could change the habit, and indeed can change almost any parts of my behavior/personality.  Because in general most of our characteristics and preferences are mutable, rather than immutable.  Or so I was informed by Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

And of course if changing that habit, or adjusting my mindset in another way seemed hard, I could listen again to Kelly McGonigal's The Willpower Instinct for techniques to increase my willpower.  (which isn't quite the right way to look at it, but close enough).

Or I could just sing to my daughter, little idiosyncrasies intact.

(Note that the reason I have a separate blog about parenting is because this is the parenting version of this post.)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Changing Reading Habits

Picked up Kameron Hurley's Mirror Empire on Tuesday, and in a bit of a fanboy moment yesterday, I tweeted this about changes in my reading habits:
I haven't yet started Mirror Empire (I really want to finish Ancillary Justice first!), but my sense is that Eye of the World might be better replaced by Pawn of Prophecy if I still had that (orphans feature prominently in each book, I believe).  The tweet's a little misleading, since I recently finished re-reading The Wheel of Time and L. E. Modessitt is actually goto comfort reading for me (and specifically Parafaith War), but the basic point remains.

My fantasy used to be straightforward Tolkienesque pseudo-medieval.  Now, I'd rather have a woman writing a book that explores and challenges some of the assumptions in the genre.  I like science fiction (I actually find Ancillary Justice some of the "harder" sci-fi I've read in a while, and it's certainly grander in scale than Modesitt), but again I'm gravitating towards things that challenge me and many of the assumptions in the genre.

After juxtaposing those 4 books, I was most struck that Ancillary Justice and Parafaith War both treat religion seriously, an inclusion I particularly enjoy, and suspect that after finishing Ancillary Justice I may well want to consider those two books in conversation.

All that for the future, however.  For now, I'm going to enjoy some of the new books I'm reading!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Safe Stories in Long Hidden

I started this post a bunch of times, and kept getting bogged down.  And then the Hugos happened, and Kameron Hurley's "We Have Always Fought" won (deservedly) and I re-read it (you should to), and I stopped focusing on arguing about the place of women in wars (not really the point, and the fact that I was focusing there showed I was missing the point), and instead started focusing on llamas and the way they're written about versus how we actually experience them (hint, not actually about llamas).  And then I realized that not only had I re-read a darn good (and award winning!) essay, but also I could lean on Kameron for this piece.

So let's take as a given that stories give us a lens to look at the world, and that sometimes the lens of story can be as influential as our actual experiences, particularly when we don't have a lot of firsthand experience.  And if you don't want to take that as a given, then maybe go read "We Have Always Fought", don't argue with it like I did, and then come back here.  I'll also drop some more links at the bottom.

Long Hidden is an anthology of stories from the margins of history.  (Have I mentioned you should buy it?) Many of those stories are about experiences and histories that I have very little firsthand exposure to, and haven't even read much about.  One of the things I'm most grateful to the authors and editors for is creating a safe space to read these stories.  I don't have to go in with my guard up, looking for a Magical Negro, Damsel in Distress or other damaging stereotypes, but could instead open myself up to unfamiliar experiences.  Two stories in particular really created a safe space for me: The Witch of Tarup and A Score of Roses.  (Witch of Tarup discussed first, with few spoilers, Score of Roses second with all the spoilers).

In The Witch of Tarup, there are a number of characters with physical disabilities.  Some permanent, some temporary.  Traditionally, disabled characters tend to be portrayed as either bitter and angry or else fonts of wisdom who transcend their disability.  Either way, they are defined by that disability.  The Witch of Tarup features neither.  The disabled characters fit into their story and community.  They need assistance at times, but can function with their disability, and are defined by their other characteristics and other ways they've fit into the community.  The story was one of my favorites from the anthology simply in the way it spun out and revealed the very touching conclusion, but also because it gave me a safe space to think about disability as a part of the whole person, rather than the defining characteristic.

Troy Wiggins' A Score of Roses also provides a safe space to tell a story too often negatively stereotyped in both fiction and media.  (Spoilers ahead!)  The two characters in 1870's Memphis are clearly identified as members of the black community by the use of African American Vernacular English (since I had to look up AAVE when I first saw it), but also as non-human spirits.  Together they fall in love, court, raise a child, and the mother (at least) leaves the family.  It is, viewed baldly, a story about what could be described as a broken family, where the child is growing up with only one parent present, the other absent with no clear indication when or if she'll return.  But mostly it's an incredibly tender story about parents falling in love and passing on their strength and identity to their children.  I did not, at all, get the sense from A Score of Roses that the family was broken in any way.  Instead I found myself smiling at the affirmation of strength and love that the characters had for each other.  It was only reflecting afterwards that I realized Troy was threading a needle by telling a story about strength and love in a family situation so often demonized or characterized as broken.  A Score of Roses may not all by itself tear down all of my preconceptions about what family means, but it certainly highlighted some of the ways those preconceptions are dangerous, flawed, and created by narratives.  (Scaly llamas!)

(After re-reading A Score of Roses, I've also remembered what a simply beautiful story it is.  Unfinished: a more detailed response to A Score of Roses by itself, because I have done this story an injustice by only bringing up the way it presents a nontraditional family in a safe, loving and supportive way).

Many of the stories in Long Hidden create safe spaces in one way or another, or challenge the stereotypes that other narratives have created.  I'm grateful to the authors and editors for doing so in a respectful way, and providing me a space to read stories that may make me uncomfortable, but also always challenged and rewarded me.  It's an incredible anthology.

If "We Have Always Fought" wasn't enough for you, more resources on the way our worldview is shaped by narrative, and some of the dangers that entails:
MedievalPOC, which shows how people of color have been removed from our view of medieval and early modern european society.
Nnedi Okorafor on The Magical Negro
Mary Robinette Kowal on writing the stereotype of the "psychotic half breed" while trying to combat other stereotypes
Ta-Nehisi Coates' point that Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns blows up the myth that black ghettoes were caused by illiterate broken families migrating to the north
Ann Leckie on restaurants that do (or don't) punch people in the face.  (Again, not really about restaurants)

Edited to correct title of The Witch of Tarup

Unfinished -
Review of A Score of Roses

Monday, August 18, 2014

Meta Monday - A Technological Bookshelf

Partly inspired by reorganizing my bookshelves, and partly by Damien Walter's recent post about why ebooks are dissatisfying, this is the first of a short series on the things that might persuade me to move primarily to e-books.

Currently I read about half of my books on the iPhone Kindle app and half in physical form.  (I also listen to occasional audiobooks and generally enjoy the experience but they have to compete with podcasts).  My wife reads all of her books on Kindle apps, primarily on her iPad Mini.

As you can probably tell from the tweets, I have an emotional connection to books.  I like seeing them in a room.  I like organizing and reorganizing them.  I think books talk to each other, and the way you set them up matters.  I think a room without books is like a body without a soul.*

Here's what my Kindle app looks like.

(I can also get a list instead of the covers.  I can sort by Author, title, or date last read/downloaded, I believe).

I do actually read a lot on my phone, almost entirely via the Kindle app (I've tried iBooks and Audible, and haven't found any appreciable difference in the shelving experience, or better reading through iBooks).

I'm quite confident that there's space to have really enjoyable bookshelves on electronic devices, I just haven't seen it yet.  The app that gives me that may pull me farther into the electronic realm.

*Mostly here so that I can put "up a Questionable Quotes" tag to give me an excuse to write about On The Shoulders of Giants (OTSOG) someday.

E-Reading Experience
Flipping through e-books
Used bookstores or lack thereof
Discovering books

Friday, August 15, 2014

Retro Hugos

The Retro Hugos were handed out at the beginning of LonCon 3, this year's World Science Fiction Convention.  Awarded for works published in 1938 (which would have been eligible for the Hugo Awards the year of the first World Science Fiction Convention in 1939) 

As it turns out, I own two of the best novel nominees, including the winner - T. H. White's The Once and Future King. I think that like my wife, I've never actually finished it, but I'm not sure.

Full aware details here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A few thoughts on Ferguson

No bookshelves tonight. [actually, book thoughts at the end]  I've been on Twitter following coverage of the protests in Ferguson, and I have a few thoughts.  In no particular order.

First, there are people smarter than me writing about this.  If you're on twitter, I'd suggest looking for faces that aren't white. Also Saladin Ahmed for general notions about the experience of being nonwhite in America (plus a great book and information on old comics!).  Also this article: "America is not for black people".  But mostly I'd suggest that if you want thoughts about how a white cop shot a black kid and the police came out as basically a paramilitary force to suppress a community venting it's frustration and anger there are people who can express and inform better than me.

Second, the FAA closed airspace around Ferguson, MO to press helicopters.  So there's some level of federal cooperation with what I understand are primarily county police and officials.  That's terrible.  Especially because it's primarily directed at preventing coverage of what's going on.

Third, early Twitter response (for me) to this came from people of color.  Then women who I typically associate with social justice activism.  Only more recently have I seen privileged white men (primarily in the tech space) getting interested in what's going on in Ferguson.  That seems telling to me.

Fourth, there's a lot of deliberately inflammatory information floating around.  Quips about how Ferguson cops don't have dash cams but do have military equipment are obnoxious.  City policy aren't leading this crackdown, the county is.  Separate government agencies.  What's going on is bad enough, why should such misleading comments seem necessary to rile up anger?

Fifth, this is a really good reminder (for me) that the heat of the moment is a terrible time to make policy.  Because a common point being made is that this is a great argument for putting dash cams in every policy car and cameras on every officer.  And that's true.  And from what I understand, cameras have been shown to reduce overall complaints of police misconduct and police violence and have also (anecdotally) protected policy against false accusations of abuse.  It took a reminder from Twitter to me that there are serious privacy implications to putting cameras everywhere: with a few minor tweaks that turns our society into an essentially unprecedented surveillance state.  There are downsides.  Privacy protections are essential, and any sweeping structural changes shouldn't be made in the heat of the moment.

Sixth, police harassment of journalists brought a bunch of journalists to complain on Twitter in ways I hadn't seen previously.  (And by "harassment" I mean: ordering journalists to leave a McDonalds, stop recording officers, assaulting the journalists, arresting them, releasing them with no paperwork, record, or obvious means to seek recourse, and denying information about the officers' identity.  All of this is awful).  Journalists are right that if police feel entitled to act this way towards journalists supported by national organizations, what are they going to do to people without such a platform, but it still looks pretty bad to see them coming to the defense of two white men when paramilitary forces are shooting rubber bullets, sonic cannons and tear gas at a black community.

Seventh, there's something here about how this wouldn't have been reported even a few years ago and the incredible power of social media.

Eighth, it seems to me that there's a lot of very sophisticated tactics going on, with no real strategy supporting them.  I'm guessing that the FAA no fly zone was triggered by a request from local authorities.  The SWAT forces with military equipment have probably had a lot of training on specific scenarios, including riot suppression.  With no particular information, I'd speculate that probably the majority of crowd interaction training for these cops has been related to crowd control, and probably most of the focus has been on violent riots.  Tactically, I'm guessing the cops on the ground are doing what they've been trained to do and drilled on.  Strategically, it appears no one is seriously considering press freedoms, freedom of assembly, the possibility that legitimate grievances can be aired in nonviolent ways, or the ways in which this response is waving a red flag in front of a bull.

Ninth (and here's where we get to books), this tactics-no-strategy approach seems related to an increasingly militarized policy force.  I read an excerpt of Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop.  It's absolutely worth a read.  The military-industrial complex has moved from the military to local police forces.  And that leads to certain types of responses to situations like what's going on in Ferguson.  (Let's also make no mistake - there's gotta be a lot of money in providing equipment and training to all of these police forces).  Similarly (and again at least partially driven by capitalist concerns), we as a society have very specific repressive approaches to policing communities of color and specifically black communities.  (Here I'd suggest Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow which I have read and found incredibly enlightening.)  I was perhaps most shocked to learn that a generation ago the trend was away from incarceration and towards other approaches to crime.  Now, of course, the incarceration rate of the US is the highest in the world.  The school-to-prison pipeline is a thing, as is the prison-industrial complex (because of course incarceration is increasingly being handed to private organizations.  As with local police forces, basic constitutional rights aren't high on their list of priorities).
This isn't a case of "evil" as I've seen mentioned in a few places on twitter.  There are powerful societal and commercial forces that have worked to make sure that police forces in black communities are focused on repressing people especially young men.  These forces laid the seeds for a white cop to shoot a fleeing black kid.  These forces trained the paramilitary organization in St. Louis County to respond with military tactics and equipment when a community gathered to protest this murder.  We don't get to say "look at those bad people over there".  Our society laid the foundation for the events in Ferguson.  Individuals, policymakers, authors and others have warned us.  We (collectively) did not stop the trends in place.  And so Cliven Bundy and his friends can point sniper rifles at federal agents and escape unscathed while SWAT teams point sniper rifles at a grieving community.

Tenth (and finally, but here are more books), we need to get over our obsession with dystopic fiction.  We have had the warnings about what happens when language is redefined so that imminent danger is months or years away (1984).  We know what happens when patriarchal theocracies take charge (Handmaid's Tale).  We know what happens when corporations and the profit motive are allowed to infiltrate such levels of government (Neuromancer, among others, although I will admit that here my ignorance of dystopias is showing).  We aren't going to find outlines of the incredible power of the government to create a racist society that the indictments located in Ta Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations or The New Jim Crow.  What we need now are more books that wrestle in a positive way with the implications of our technology.  Governments have listened.  They have learned.  Science Fiction has the power to inspire.  Inspire us to ensure privacy while empowering citizens in an age of always-on communication.  Inspire us to change subconscious prejudices and assumptions so that we can expand our idea of community.  Inspire us to challenge the powers of centralized capital with decentralized outrage.  I'm tired of dystopias.  I can see them wherever I look.  Show me a Utopia.

OK, now I'm done.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Closeup: Meeting characters in Jaran

I discovered Kate Elliott sometime in high school (I think via a friend's father, and I'm pretty sure Jaran walked off to college with me), and I have fond memories of wandering through used bookstores & book sales trying to fill out the Crown of Stars series.  I commented to a friend recently that Jaran is how I first fell in love with Kate Elliott & this inspired me to pick the book up again.

Re-reading, I'm struck by how the various characters are introduced, and wanted to take a look at how this contrasts with other characters in other novels.

Tl;dr - There's a LOT of world and culture building in the various characters that Tess meets when she first lands, even in quick thumbnail sketches.  Elliot highlights these details with descriptions of physical artifacts (clothing and accoutrements) and interactions between the genders.  She also plants the seeds for upcoming conflicts.


"Two young women sat on a padded bench by the huge overlook.  One, black-skinned and black-haired, watched the work below.  The second, looking pale and light-haired mostly in contrast to her companion, studied the words she had just typed."

Ilya Bakhtiian:
"A stream of words, incomprehensible, delivered in a steady, commanding voice ... A man stood on the slope above her. He had dark hair, cut short, a trim dark beard, and the look of a man hardened by many years of difficult life ... His shirt was scarlet and full, his trousers black; his high boots were tanned leather and fit closely to his ankle and calf. A long curving blade hung from his belt."

Yuri (Yurinya Orzhekov):
"The newcomer was a young man with bright blond hair and a cheerful smile. The smile emerged as he met them, fading into astonishment as he looked at Tess ... Unabashed the younger man swung down from his horse and came over to stand below Tess. He blushed a little - easy to see on his fair skin - and lifted his arms up to her."

Sonia Orzhekov:
"And soon after a woman whose broad, merry face bespoke a blood relationship to Yuri. She held a child in one arm, balanced on her hip ... she handed the child over to another woman and crossed to stand next to Tess ... She looked up at Tess and smiled. It was like water in the desert .... "I am Yuri's sister, so he has properly brought you to me ... Tess stared at her, at her blond hair secured in four braids, her head capped by a fine headpiece of colored beads and leather; she wore a long blue tunic studded with gold trim that ended at her knees, and belled blue trousers beneath that, tucked into soft leather boots. An object shaped like a hand mirror hung from her belt." [Note that the mirror is a significant object later in the story]

[After the men, most blushing, have walked by the women] "A young man with reddish-blond hair looked up as he passed Sonia and Tess, and winked. He had piercingly blue eyes."  Sonia: "'I want you all to know. He winked.'"
"A chorus up and down the line, answered her. 'Kirill!'"

"Two steps behind followed a fair, pretty young man who wore a profusion of necklaces in a multitude of colors that clashed with the garish embroidery decorating the sleeves and yoke of his scarlet shirt. Tassels of gold and silver braid hung from his boot tops.  Tess could not help but stare."
'He dresses -' She faltered.
'He'd like to be noticed. I suppose women might find him attractive.'" [Yuri]


Ilya and Sonia are the first man and first woman we meet and so Kate Elliott spends some time with them on the physical accoutrements of the culture.  Beyond that, Yuri, Kirill and Vladimir are easily and immediately differentiated members of Bakhtiian's retinue.  Ilya, meanwhile, stands both to introduce Tess (and us) to the Rhuian culture so his development takes a longer time.  Each of the other characters, however, also contributes to an understanding of the culture and seeds potential future conflicts.

Let's compare an early (non main) character from a few other series:
Burrich (From Assassin's Apprentice):
"'Here, Burrich,' Jason said matter-of-factly.  'This pup's for you, now.' ... Beside me, the man called Burrich set down his mug and glared around at Jason.
'What's this?' he asked, sounding very much like the man in the warm chamber. He had the same unruly blackness to his hair and beard, but his face was angular and narrow. His face had the color of a man much outdoors. His eyes were brown rather than black, and his hands were long-fingered and clever. He smelled of horses and dogs and blood and leathers."

Senzei Reese (From Black Sun Rising):
"A glass counter served to support several dozen books and the man who was perusing them. He was pale in a way that westerners rarely were, but Damien sensed nothing amiss about the coloring; despite its stark contrast with his dark hair, eyes, and clothing, it probably meant nothing more sinister than that he worked the late shift ...
The man lifted up his wire-rimmed spectacles as he noticed his visitor, then removed them; Damien caught a flash of delicately etched sigils centered in the circles of clear glass. 'Welcome,' he said pleasantly. 'Can I help you with anything?'"

Corson (From The Forever Hero):
"Corson paused outside the portal. As the chief engineering officer, he had the absolute right to enter any duty space on the ship, but he still hesitated. Marso had the kind of tongue that could strip flesh from bone.
He frowned, then squared his shoulders and keyed the portal with his own code, the one that overrode all but the captain's locks.
Corson saw the streak of blond, bent, and spread his arms.
Even at nearly two hundred centimeters and on hundred ten kilos, he was staggered by the impact and set back on his heels. But he refused to let go of the snarling figure that pounded at his midsection and sent kneecaps towards his stomach.
Corson shifted his grip into the patterns he had learned too many years before at the Academy and finally fumbled until he had immobilized the smaller figure."


What jumps out at me me contrasting the introductions in Jaran with some of the other stories is that despite generally shorter introductions, Kate Elliott manages to pack a lot of character depth and worldbuilding into each of her characters.  Granted that much of the "point" of Jaran is to introduce and examine a new culture (particularly gender relations and physical artifacts), Elliott also manages to plant seeds of future conflict within only a few sentences.  

I'm also struck by how many supporting characters Elliott brings into her series.  Granted I'd originally pulled out Gardens of the Moon and finally discarded it because the mysterious introductions of so many actors is much of the point, Jaran contains many more supporting characters than the other books I quoted from.  Because the introduction of these characters helps to develop the setting and theme of the book, rather than simply complicating the narrative, adding additional characters enhances the novel, rather than simply laying out more threads to pull forward later.

But most of all I'm noticing all the promises that Elliott makes to her reader in Jaran.  (And a hat tip to Howard Taylor for introducing me to this concept).  Characters and in particular their relationships are going to sit at the center of this novel.  These characters will exist in a fully realized culture, characterized by it's physical artifacts and gender relationship.  Women in this novel have authority and agency.  The relations between men and women will be both romantic and platonic, and will be driven by strong and different motivations.  (It's clear immediately that a scene with Kirill in it will be very different from a scene with Yuri or Vladimir, for instance)

What I remember about Jaran, and am still loving on the re-read, is that Tess is thrust into an incredibly well-realized world, and I get to ride along with her.  What I'm noticing now much more than previously is how Elliott immerses me in the world, and the sorts of work each scene is doing.  Tess is moving through a big world, literally and figuratively, surrounded by a lot of people, each unique, and the things that they make, carry, and care for (including ever-present babies and small children!).  In many ways, it's some of the most immersive fiction I've read in a long time.