Moral Dilemmas and Fight Scenes

There’s nothing quite like seeing a movie about women, starring women, made by women, with a cast of so very many women.

Powerful women. Women who care about each other. Women who act in the world.

There were some men on screen, too, but the movie wasn’t about them. Everything about this movie was about the women.

And oh, God, the fight scenes were magnificent.

If you’re hungry for a movie that doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test, but blows it out of the water, I highly recommend The Woman King.

From the beginning, when you see Viola Davis as Nanisca lead her army of women into battle to all the moments when Lashana Lynch as Izogie is giving guidance to Thuso Mbedu as the young recruit Nawi and all the scenes where Nawi and the others are learning to be warriors, this movie focuses on women, on their abilities, their strengths, their friendships.

I don’t think I knew how hungry I was for a movie like this until I saw it.  Continue reading “Moral Dilemmas and Fight Scenes”

Multivitamins and the Mind of Older Folks

I was a participant in the COSMOS trial (it was fun!) examining possible benefits for older folks from cocoa flavonoids and an ordinary multivitamin (they used Centrum Silver). While the cocoa extract had no effect on cognition, the multivitamin did–it actually improved cognition! (Cardiovascular events and cancer results are reported elsewhere). Here’s the summary:

Vitamins, minerals, and other bioactives in foods are important for normal brain function, and deficiencies in older adults may increase risk for cognitive decline. Dietary supplements are often recommended for cognitive protection, but supporting evidence is mixed. COSMOS investigators partnered with colleagues at Wake Forest University to test whether daily use of cocoa extract or a multivitamin for 3 years can reduce the risk of cognitive decline. The COSMOS-Mind sub-study enrolled 2,262 COSMOS participants aged 65 and older who completed annual telephone interviews to assess memory and thinking abilities. The investigators found that cocoa extract did not affect cognition. On the other hand, daily multivitamin use improved cognitive function. That is, participants assigned to the multivitamin group had higher cognitive test scores after 3 years than the participants assigned to the multivitamin-placebo group. The investigators estimated that taking the daily multivitamin slowed cognitive aging by approximately 60%, or the equivalent of 1.8 years over the 3 years of the study, but this finding requires confirmation in future research. “COSMOS-Mind provides the first evidence from a large randomized trial to show that regular use of a typical daily multivitamin may improve memory and thinking abilities in older adults,” noted COSMOS Co-Director Dr. Howard Sesso, who leads COSMOS with Dr. JoAnn Manson. However, the story continues to unfold as other investigators complete separate studies in COSMOS that dig more deeply into the effects of both cocoa extract and a multivitamin on different aspects of cognition and other aging-related outcomes.
The whole study is here.

An Interesting Monday

I planned to blog on my yesterday, but the world caught up with me. It’s still Monday in the US, however, so I thought I’d talk on what caught up with me and prevented me writing on my Monday. Not everything. Honestly, you don’t need the details of a migraine and some of the more interesting (and quite unsavoury) symptoms. Just let me say that for some of us, migraines affect the stomach as much as the head and that there were many things I was unable to do yesterday.

Three big things made my Monday unforgettable. One of them would have been quite enough. Let me talk about them in chronological order.

First, a very fine meeting. I chatted with the actor doing my audiobooks. I didn’t know enough about audiobooks (and was too ill) for the actor who read Langue[dot]doc 1305. I heard the first fifteen minutes and asked if he had any questions and we had an email exchange and that was about it. I will always regret not being there for an actor who was new to this work.

This time, because the new reader-of-my-books is American and my accents are seldom US, and she’s reading the Australian settings and locals know best how to pronounce words like Garema, Manuka and even Canberra, we’re talking about my books more.

It was a wonderful meeting. It took a big chunk of my work day, but was so worth it. She had sorted out how to say Manuka and Canberra earlier, so yesterday was only Garema, which means, mostly, we talked about accent. She’s not reading my novels in an Australian accent, but a more British one.

Australian accents are kinda impossible for people from the US and not that easy for most other actors outside Australia and New Zealand. Some sounds, however, are closer to US English than to the Cockney that Australian sounds like to many, and we talked those through. Australians pronounce ‘h’, for instance.

It was a fascinating conversation. I now know a lot more about why our accent is so imponderable for so many US listeners. I also know now that my English is, in some vowel sounds, halfway between the US and the UK.

The second thing was learning of the death of Maureen Kinkaid Speller. This is a terrible thing. We needed at least two more decades with her in the midst of fandom, educating us, supporting us, and telling us of the adventures of her beautiful cats. In 2018 we talked about not being able to see each other. I’d planned to spend as much time with her as she could stomach, talking about books and both of our research. Those visits all were postponed by COVID. I have a hole in my life where those conversations should have been and a gaping maw in the place Maureen herself inhabited.

I’m not alone in this. I suspect Maureen never knew just how important she was to so many people, even those like me who she only saw from time to time.

I knew her online a little and then discovered the full wonder of her mind and her sense of humour when she interviewed me (about Life Through Cellophane/Ms Cellophane) for London fandom over a decade ago. Her kindness that day, when I’d just got off the plane from Australia and was entirely jetlagged and had no idea I was ill and… her kindness and her insights into my work meant a lot to me, and capacity to get me through that interview and make it a good one despite my condition was amazing. That was the day I planned many more long conversations.

Yesterday I discovered that I’m not the only person who found her a quiet pillar of light. So many of us…

The other death the whole world has known about for a little while, but the funeral is now done. Much pomp and ceremony. Many hours of TV. I only watched some of it, because of the migraine and because of the time – I wasn’t going to stay awake all night, even for something this historically important.

The thing is…Australia is now ruled by a king. Furthermore, that same king was the man we asked politely not to be our Governor-General decades ago. Australia is, to be blunt, both respectful and also a bit sarcastic about our head of state and about the head of the most important religious denomination here.

This raises so many questions about what kind of democracy we have and want. The last elections showed what kind we want, but the role of the Governor-General was questioned this month when Hurley did political things that he was not supposed to. He asked for (and got) $18 million to establish a leadership institute. That money has now been rescinded, but it leaves the question that we all felt in the 70s… if the Governor-General plays politics, wouldn’t we rather have a president than a queen (now a king)?

The monarchy has played a very quiet, gentle role in most of Australia’s independent history, and every time a Governor-General tries to change that, we get angsty. David Hurley established his little leadership scheme and distressed many of us. John Kerr dismissed the prime minister and distressed more of us. While most people still voted for the opposition, this didn’t mean they were happy with Kerr. He couldn’t be seen in public for most of the rest of his life without incurring some really nasty comments and at least once, thrown tomatoes.

There is a third death, but it was all over last week. The mention of Whitlam’s dismissal and John Kerr reminds me of it. Sir David Smith, the man who kept the Governor-Generalship going, despite Kerr. He was secretary to the Governor-General, and bore brutal public nicknames while still maintaining friendships with all parties. He quietly kept Australia going through that crisis in the 70s. Sir David was such a good man and so important in so many ways, that an ex-Prime Minister came to his private memorial service.

I knew him, for a number of reasons. In fact, I met Whitlam through him. Ask me and I’ll tell you that story one day. It involves a pink shirt.

So much of the critical aspects of Australian politics happen quietly. We are more like Britain than the US. When I was in training to be a policy wonk, we were given “Yes, Minister” as training material. The nature of most things political, especially these two important deaths, is the flavour of the week and yes, Maureen and I have spoken politics and I wanted to talk politics with her some more. More than any of the others we’ve lost, I shall miss Maureen Kinkaid Speller.

Family History and the Queen

My grandmother was the only person I knew growing up who didn’t love the English or their Queen. She usually made this clear by slightly snide remarks, an oddity because she was generally very nice to people.

I didn’t understand this until many years later, when my father told me that while my grandmother was a teenager in the second decade of the 20th century, her grandfather lived with her family at the hotel they ran in Christoval, Texas. He was going blind by then, so she used to read to him from books he was fond of as well as from the newspapers.

So I imagine that in the spring of 1916, she read to him about the Easter Uprising in Ireland against the British.

I should mention that her grandfather, Florence McCarthy, was born in County Cork, Ireland, and immigrated to the United States as a young man in the 1850s. I don’t know why he came, except that he had a brother in New York, but while it might have been for economic reasons, it might also have been political ones.

In any case, based on my grandmother’s attitude about the English, I venture to say his politics were on the Irish side of the Uprising.

My grandmother, in fact, always saw herself as Irish even though she never visited the place. I don’t think she left the U.S. except for a trip or two to Mexico. But she was always more Irish in her own mind than she was Texan. Continue reading “Family History and the Queen”

Very Clean

I was ten when A Hard Day’s Night came out. It played for about a year at the Village Cinema, four blocks from my house in Greenwich Village. The Village Cinema was a little art house, and while my mother was not against dropping the kids at the movies (I was 10, my brother was 8) especially during the summer when it was hot and there was air conditioning, she preferred to do it at the Waverly or the Loews Sheraton (both larger, with a larger, more supervisory staff to make sure we wouldn’t be spirited away). I think she found the Village Cinema–what was called an “art house” in those days, a little skeevy. In any case, neither my mother nor my father was enthused by the idea of taking us themselves and spending two hours watching what they anticipated would be a standard teen-pop-star movie.

Enter my Aunt Julie. Julie is my mother’s younger sister. She not only didn’t balk at taking us to the movie, she was delighted. By the time she came to visit we were in Massachusetts for the summer, so the three of us went to the Mahaiwe, the local theatre in Great Barrington, to see it. The rest, as far as we were concerned, was history. The three of us came home afterwards singing and quoting lines (“I now declare this bridge open…”) and within a week or two my mother, at least, gave in to the siren call of upbeat music and my aunt’s enthusiastic recommendation, and she began quoting from it as well. My grandmother called to ask me what the refrain of “he’s very clean,” referring to Paul’s grandfather, was all about. I saw Hard Day’s Night a good dozen times over the next year, and whole chunks of the dialogue moved into our household vernacular. Continue reading “Very Clean”

“Accidents”

There Are No Accidents -- book by Jessie SingerWhen I read nonfiction, I usually have one of three responses:

  • Wow, that’s interesting. I never thought about it like that before.
  • Some of this is interesting, but I disagree with parts of it.
  • This book isn’t worth my time – it is either so wrong as to be laughable or so simplistic as to be useless.

But when I read There Are No Accidents by Jessie Singer, I had a fourth reaction: I could have written this book. By which I mean I know something about most of what she covered and agreed with her analysis.

This isn’t jealousy – I haven’t done the research and interviews that she did and had no plans to write such a book. It’s gratitude. Not only did she pull all those points together in an excellent book, but also she let me realize that I am not a lone voice crying into the wind on a number of subjects related to “accidents.”

The whole point of this book is that so many things we dismiss as accidents – including the ones that cause serious injury and death – are in fact the result of terrible systems that build acceptance of a certain number of deaths into their design.

Singer came to this subject because her best friend was killed by a drunk motorist when riding his bicycle. In looking into the circumstances, she realized that the supposedly safe bike path her friend was using was in fact not protected from bad drivers.

In this country, transportation has been built around the car, and the design of our systems sacrifices safety for speed and ease of car use. We blame the resulting “accidents” on bad driving – or on bad bicycling or bad walking.

Speaking as someone who drives a car, rides a bike, and walks, I can guarantee you that everyone who does those things makes mistakes, even if we’re cold sober. We get distracted. We screw up shifting gears on the bike. We look down at our phones while crossing the street.

Based on my experience – and I have fortunately never been injured in a car accident – I think we make the most mistakes while driving because it is virtually impossible to pay attention to everything we need to do, and it gets harder the faster you go.

By the way, did you know that the speed limit on highways is calculated by figuring out how fast the fastest 15 percent of drivers drive, and then setting the limit at the lowest speed for that 15 percent? This is one of the things in the book I didn’t know, though I often feel the speed limit on highways is too high for the amount of traffic and the quality of the road. Continue reading ““Accidents””

What’s New With Voyager 1?

 Voyager 1 is no Longer Sending Home Garbled Data!

This aging and still-valuable spacecraft has been exploring the outer parts of the solar system since its launch in 1977, along with its twin sibling, Voyager 2. They each traveled slightly different trajectories. Both went past Jupiter and Saturn, but Voyager 2 continued on to Uranus and Neptune. They’re both now outside the solar system, sending back data about the regions of space they’re exploring.

Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter in March 1979, and Saturn in November 1980. After its close approaches to those two gas giants, it started a trajectory out of the solar system and entered interstellar space in 2013. That’s when it ceased to detect the solar wind and scientists began to see an increase in particles consistent with those in interstellar space.

These days, Voyager 1 is more than 157.3 astronomical units from Earth and moving out at well over 61,000 km/hour. It’s busy collecting data about the interstellar medium and radiation from distant objects. If all goes well, the spacecraft should continue sending back data for nearly a decade. After that, it should fall silent as it travels beyond the Oort Cloud and out to the stars.

Earlier this year, however, the teams attached to the Voyager 1 mission noticed that the spacecraft was sending weird readouts about its attitude articulation and control system (called AACS, for short). Essentially, the AACS was sending telemetry data all right, but it was routing it to the wrong computer, one that had failed years ago. This corrupted the data, which led to the strangely garbled messages the ground-based crew received.

Once the engineers figured out that the old, dead computer might have been part of the problem, they had a way forward. They simply told the AACS to switch over sending to the correct computer system. The good news was that it didn’t affect science data-gathering and transmission. The best news came this week: team engineers have fixed the issue with the AACS and the data are flowing normally again.

The ongoing issue with AACS didn’t set off any fault protection systems onboard the spacecraft. If it had, Voyager 1 would have gone into “safe mode” while engineers tried to figure out what happened. During the period of garbled signals, AACS continued working, which indicated that the problem was either upstream or downstream of the unit. The fact that data were garbled provided a good clue to related computer issues.

This adapted article appeared in Universe Today. Click through for the full thing.

Books and food and science fiction/fantasy

My mind is buzzing with food stories again. I’m on a panel in a few minutes, you see. The panel is described in my last post, and is the final one for me for this convention. I’ve been battling my heath these last few days, so I haven’t done all the exciting social things and watching the many panels I had intended to do. But still, I got to catch up with some friends and to talk about subjects I love.

Given I have just a few minutes to write, and given I want to talk about books, and given… all the things, why don’t I introduce you to the stash of books I have by my side to keep me company during the panel?

The first book is a volume I’m suing for my research. It’s Michael Owen Jones’ Frankenstein was a Vegetarian: Essays on Food Choice, Identity, and Symbolism. I love it that there’s now enough research on related subjects so that when I analyse food in fiction, I don’t have to throw my hands up in despair and wail. This book is actually part of my non-convention work this week, so, right now, it’s filling three functions.

The CSFG Gastronomicon ed Stuart Barrow. This is a science fiction anthology with recipes. My story was sent to Stu to test the system, and was not the one I intended to suggest for it. On the front cover there is a dinner table, created by the inimitable Les Petersen. Every time I see this art, since it first appeared in 2005, I have wondered about my picture. Les made us look real, but from fantasy stories. I need to ponder why I never see myself the way artists and photographers see me.

The next book is by me, but has wonderful line drawings by Kathleen Jennings on the cover. It’s the book of the banquets (Five Historical Feasts: The Banquets of Conflux). I tell the story of the years we created these events, and how we researched the food history and added a few extras. There are stories by some very well known authors, and an article on Richard III’s coronation feast. There is also a record of the committee meeting where we tested all the drinks for the Prohibition dinner. This fits nicely in with Anne McCaffrey’s Cooking Out of this World.

Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, Dining on Babylon 5 (Human Edition), and two quite different versions of the Doctor Who cookbook represent my (very small) collection of books representing science fiction and fantasy worlds. Cooking with Asterix also (sorta) fits into this and is mostly in the pile for the cartoons.

The second last book in my pile is the book I recommend to anyone who wants to cook English food from the Middle Ages. Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks is so handy as a springboard into talking about food in fantasy fiction, because it helps even those who don’t know what a medieval kitchen looked like understand what sort of cooking is possible.

The final book is the place where the fantastical meets the historical meets the foodie: it’s a translation of Nostradamus recipe book.

And now that you know what is on one side of me (on the other is washing, drying on an airer) I shall go be part of this panel!

Living in William Gibson’s World

The PeripheralI recently read William Gibson’s The Peripheral. In it all kinds of creepy things are going on that ordinary people don’t know anything about.

It harks back in many ways to Neuromancer and its sequels in terms of the level of science fiction in it. Some of the books he wrote in-between felt so close to the near future that they almost seemed mainstream, but The Peripheral incorporates a not-too-distant very different future.

It is, of course, beautifully written. Gibson has always been an excellent writer. I wasn’t a big fan of a lot of the cyberpunks, but back in the 80s, when I was mostly catching up on the great feminist SF of the 70s, I also read him.

And like some other writers who’ve been at this a long time (I’ve commented before about this with respect to Kim Stanley Robinson and Karen Joy Fowler), he’s just gotten better with age. You get the feeling that everything he’s done in the book is deliberate.

He did what he wanted to do.

The thing is that, despite the fact that I’m not inclined to believe in conspiracies — which is to say, I know people conspire, but I don’t believe in big complicated ones that involve things just beyond our ken, as a rule — I’m starting to feel like we’re living in Gibson’s world. Continue reading “Living in William Gibson’s World”