In Praise of Things

My aunt was in the hospital for a few days (nothing major, except when you’re pushing 98 everything is major)). To a one, the staff at the hospital were wonderful–competent, kind, empathetic, and sometimes, funny. But a lot of the time my aunt was dozing off–hospital life not being a thrill a minute, even with your favorite niece on premises–and I found myself looking at all the things.

I’ve always been fascinated by medical technology, but particularly the small stuff: the clips that hold IV bags in place but also serve to gather up the tentacles of tubing so that the patient and staff aren’t constantly tying themselves in knots; the plastic sheet with straps that slides easily over the bed, so that a patient can be moved easily and with less stress on her and her caregivers; the astonishing doohickey that the hospital uses to help move mostly-bedbound patients to a recliner or wheelchair; the contraption that helps my recuperating daughter pull her socks on without bending in medically unadvisable ways. None of these things are going to make history, but they make the lives of people who are sick or disabled, and the lives of their caregivers a little easier.

It pleases me to think that there are people out there who spend their days coming up with these gadgets. Probably some of them were invented by caregivers or people who work in hospitals. My father, who was a volunteer Emergency Medical Tech for twenty years, was one of those folks. At the time each ambulance had reusable medical-grade splint. If the splint was used during a call, they had to wait until the patient had been stabilized and the splint had been cleaned and disinfected before they could use it again. In a community with a number of ski-slopes and lots of winter sports, more than one broken limb in an afternoon was not exactly unheard of. So my father (who was an artist, industrial designer, and unstoppable tinkerer) came up with a lightweight, inexpensive disposable splint. He patented it and found a manufacturer to license it, and he split the proceeds with the ambulance squad. That was 30 years ago, and I suspect that Dad’s splint has been rendered quaint by subsequent inventions. Even so.

When I used to give platelets I was the weirdo who asked the phlebotomist all sorts of questions about the bits and pieces of tech that were used, not only to test my blood for iron before I gave lots of it away, but to make the process easier for the technician and more pleasant for the blood source (which would be me). Not least of which is that stretchy mesh bandage that comes in a rainbow array of colors. “What color would you like today? Purple? Green? Neon pink?”

There are downsides, of course. Most of these things are meant to be used once, which means that they are small, probably relatively cheap, and made of plastic. I worry about the sheer amount of plastic that is added to an already-overburdened planet in the name of doing health-related things safely and easily, without the need for sterilization and re-use. I would be a little leery of, say, compostable plastics used for things like IV tubing or test tubes. Maybe for some of the comfort- and transportation-devices? I don’t know if any of the hospital-use plastics are recycled, but it would make me very happy to know that they were. And the Big Plastic Things (like the iMove patient mover chair I linked to above) are durable equipment, meant for many uses, and at the end of their lives could be recycled.

I want–I applaud–all the clever gizmos that busy minds can devise to be used and improved and to make our lives better. I also want, because having it all is my watchword, for those things to leave as little trace as possible for the next generations. It’s only fair.

Music past

This evening I’ve been exploring music past. I wanted to hear the music I knew in the 60s and 70s. Someone put up a list of top Australian hits in 1974 and I looked at it and realised that it’s quite different to the music generally associated with that year. We hear about music from the USA, you see, and from the UK.

I listened to some of the tunes on that list first, but one of the top ten struck me as getting my mood exactly right when it was first released: Helen Reddy’s “Leave Me Alone” was perfect for a proto-teenager.

I moved onto orchestral music. When I was in primary school and early high school, we went to Melbourne Town Hall and were taught to understand orchestral music. In primary school we were taught the instruments of the orchestra, how the orchestra worked, Peter and the Wolf, Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker, mainly), Beethoven and… that’s all I remember. I watched a Bernstein recording and he taught children very different stuff. More the stuff I discovered when I was a teenager. As a teenager I fell in love with Schubert, played in a regional orchestra and the school orchestra (second violin in one, first in the other), and I went to concerts every fortnight. I came from a musical family and went to a standard state school… which happened to have free music education. I once did a lot of music, and the Bernstein brought the formal education aspect flooding back. My top moment of music learning was when Felix Werder taught me to care for Mahler and when my father’s first cousin taught me how to listen. Linda was a composer and a music judge and a critic, and her random remarks taught me so much. Since that moment, everything has gone downhill… but… my evening of music didn’t stop with memories of Mahler and Linda. I was very privileged musically in my childhood, not so much as an adult.

I sang, of course, some songs I learned from Alfred Deller and also the King’s Singers. They were my personal favourite musicians when I was a teen, and both really annoyed my family. Everyone else was singing ABBA and the bay City Rollers and I was listening to a counter-tenor who sang folk songs. I was informed by my family how very bad my singing is

Then moved to my final music for the evening. I’m writing to it now. Tom Lehrer. This sentence is being typed to the rhythm of The Vienna Schnitzel Waltz. The final note of the night was either going to be Lehrer or Flanders and Swann. The news makes me sarcastic right now, so of course it’s Lehrer.

And now, of course, I’m very curious about the music of your childhoods. Of course I am.

So Much Kerfuffle Over Awards

I am not a huge fan of awards for writing. On the one hand, it’s always great to have your work noticed and I do like to recommend amazing books and stories because it’s another way of telling the world they should read these particular ones.

But on the other, writing isn’t a competition in the way that, say, a foot race is. In a race, the fastest person wins.

And while it’s certainly possible to have bitter disputes over racing — the mistreatment of Caster Semenya comes to mind — the competition is quite a bit less complicated than determining whether one book is better than another.

Still, I recommend books I think are worthy for the Nebula Awards each year and I vote when I have read enough of the nominees to have an opinion. And certainly I’d be pleased to be nominated — hell, I’m pleased when someone recommends my work or mentions it in the year-end review.

So I have been paying attention to what happened with the Hugo Awards in 2023, where people and works were disqualified for reasons that remain unclear. If you haven’t been keeping up with this, The Guardian has a very good article on it here.

I note that Babel by R.F. Kwang won other awards last year and is viewed by many as one of the best books that came out. I have read it and thought it was very good. I haven’t read Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher, which won the novel Hugo, but I have read other books by her and would not be at all surprised to find that it was also excellent.

The fact that Babel was “disqualified” for reasons that remain unclear is unfair to both authors. The same can be said about the other categories.

Since the convention was held in China, there is a lot of speculation that certain works and people were disqualified at the behest of the Chinese government or out of fear that the government would be displeased.

If that is true, it is an argument that the possibility of government interference should be considered in selecting WorldCon sites.

However, if it isn’t true, if the disqualifications happened because of errors of some kind, it is important to clear this up so that it will not be held against Chinese fans in the future.

There is a large science fiction fandom in China and any organization called the World Science Fiction Society needs to include those people.

It’s clearly important to get answers, but unfortunately the people who have the answers are waving around the word “disqualified” as if it means something. If there was a rule that disqualified Babel, it’s not one anybody on the outside knows about.  Continue reading “So Much Kerfuffle Over Awards”

The Return of the Brontosaurus

Remember the brontosaurus vs apatosaurus debate? Turns out both sides were right…we think…so far.

Here’s the skinny: The skeleton of a long-necked, long-tailed dinosaur was unearthed in Wyoming by paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh in 1879, according to the Natural History Museum in London. At the time, scientists dubbed the giant plant eater, which lived during the Jurassic period about 150 million years ago, Brontosaurus excelsus, according to Yale University.

However, in 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs found that B. excelsus was very similar to another dinosaur, Apatosaurus ajax, which Marsh discovered in Colorado in 1877, the Natural History Museum noted. The differences between the dinosaurs appeared so minor that scientists decided it was better to place them both in the same genus, or group of species. Because Apatosaurus was named first, the rules of scientific naming kept its name, leading scientists to retire the name Brontosaurus.

More than 100 years later, researchers suggested reviving Brontosaurus as its own genus. A 2015 study of sauropods in the journal PeerJ found that the original Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus fossils may have been different enough to classify them as separate groups.

The nearly 300-page study examined 477 physical features of 81 sauropod specimens. The initial aim of the research was to analyze the relationships between the species making up the family of sauropods known as Diplodocidae, which includes Diplodocus, Apatosaurus and, now, Brontosaurus.

All in all, the scientists found that Brontosaurus’ neck was higher-set, narrower and smaller than Apatosaurus’, study lead author Emanuel Tschopp, a vertebrate paleontologist now at the University of Hamburg in Germany, told Live Science. They suggested three known species of Brontosaurus: B. excelsus, B. parvus and B. yahnahpin.

“They call Brontosaurus ‘resurrected,'” Jacques Gauthier, curator of reptiles at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, who did not participate in this study. “I like the ring of that. ‘Restored’ is a perfectly correct term, but ‘resurrected’ is the official description of what they have done.”

Tschopp noted that they could not have made this discovery 15 or more years before their study; only recently did findings of dinosaurs similar to Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus help reveal what made these groups unique.

It has been nearly a decade since the paper published, and Tschopp noted that “not everybody accepts such proposals immediately. There have been — and still are — researchers who don’t trust the results quite yet and continue to use the name Apatosaurus for what I call Brontosaurus.”

Mike Taylor, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Bristol in England who did not take part in the 2015 study, told Live Science in an email, “you rarely get consensus from paleontologists on these matters, so the answer you get will depend on who you ask. There’s been no pushback in the formal literature, but I’ve heard a bit of grumbling.”

Still, to Taylor, the call to “resurrect” Brontosaurus “just feels like a reasonable thing to do.” He noted that the 2015 study “made a solid argument that most specialists found pretty persuasive and not especially surprising.” Taylor and his colleagues have mentioned B. excelsus and B. parvus in their own studies a number of times.

Of books and migraines and dancing

I am drinking a triumphal cup of tea. A very weak and immensely huge triumphal cup of tea. There is a story behind this cup of tea, and the triumph. A tiny story, but a story.

I’m in the middle of one of my longer migraines. This one is in its fourth day. As migraines go, it’s very mild. I find it hard to see things and almost impossible to sleep, I’m sensitive to sound and my emotional peace fractures easily. I’ve had worse. Much worse. The low pain levels (for a migraine) are due to the wonder of becoming older. Some things improve with age, oddly.

None of this is the story of my triumph. It’s the backstory.

I have lost so much worktime to this migraine that I had begun fretting about deadlines. I have a thesis to finish: the biggest chapter was supposed to be in a complete draft by Monday, and where I am it’s Tuesday. I need to get some edits to an editor (who else would one send edits to?) urgently, and can’t find a bio to go with the edits. I have a really cool piece to write in the next two days. And I have a short story to finish. I need to deal with 100 emails by bedtime tonight. Plus, as soon as I finish that chapter, I’m onto the next one. This PhD is in its final months and deadlines aren’t as porous as they once were.

Now you have most of the backstory. I’ve brought you to 4 am today, when I finally admitted that the migraine would not go away and that I had to find a way to deal.

The triumph is perfectly simple. Skip most of today, and let’s move to ten minutes ago.

I have a section of a bookshelf. It holds maybe 80 books and is ¼ of the whole (very large) bookshelf. This section is my working shelf for any research. It had gaps and space because I had not yet returned all the books for this chapter. I have finished with all but one book and the shelves are very full. One day I’ll have to return the books I won’t need again for this project to their real homes on other shelves, but right now I only have one book to return and two tiny sections of the chapter to write up and lo, I’m caught up with one big deadline.

I needed something to take the edge of the migraine before I delve into the last two thousand words, and the triumphal cuppa is that something. Small things matter. So do the simple tasks that enable one to work through this lesser-stage of such a long migraine.

I was going to tell you about a cousin of mine today. A folk dance teacher who taught people to deal with problems of right and left foot by wearing different coloured socks and shoes. On the day I heard he died, I watched Easter Parade with a friend. The “I do not know my right from my left” made its appearance there, hours before I heard the sad news. I haven’t seen Robin for years, but as soon as this migraine is past, I shall dance something in his honour: it will be a short and simple dance because dancing is difficult for me these days, but it will be joyous. We talked about death many years ago, you see, and Robin wanted people to dance joyously when he died. I told him that same day, that I wanted to be remembered with stories. I wanted friends to get together and talk and eat and laugh and tell stories. I shall miss him.


My favorite sports story (myth? metaphor?) is the one where two competitors fight to the bitter end in very close competition and then fall into each other’s arms. One has won, one has lost, but in the moment it doesn’t really matter which one did which, because the whole thing was about the fight or the game or the process — the doing with each other.

I wrote a story about that once: “Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars.” It’s sort of a love story, but it’s also about how winning isn’t what anything’s about, even when everything is on the line. It was published quite a few years back in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

Maybe I should send it out to reprint markets.

I’m not particularly competitive. I like to succeed, don’t get me wrong. I want to be read, to be listened to, for others to admire my work, to get accepted by magazines and publishers, and I realize that when I get accepted someone else gets rejected, as a rule.

But I don’t do it for the joy of beating someone else. I do it for the joy of doing. If I succeed, I am not thinking about all those people who lost when I “won”; I’m just thinking about the fact that someone liked what I did.

I’d feel something similar if I was competing in karate or tennis or road races or something, though it would spoil some of my pleasure if a person beat me and then engaged in taunting.

(I really don’t like taunting.)

I want to be good and I want to be recognized as good, but I’m not doing it so that I can call someone else a loser.

I mean, some artists, athletes, musicians and so forth do transcend the rest of us — sometimes just once, sometimes over a long period of time — but that doesn’t mean the others are losers. Continue reading “Competition”

Better Living Through Sauerkraut

I wish I had been taught Chemistry differently. To this day, most of the chemistry I learned in school was as a side-benefit of my biology classes. I loved bio, and survived chemistry (required) and physics (ditto) in order to take the advanced biology class my senior year, wherein a good deal of chemistry was taught in passing, particularly when we were looking at DNA and genetics. But beyond that, Chemistry the subject seemed utterly detached from things I cared about. Okay, some times you just have to buckle down and get through the classes you don’t much care about (I’m looking at you, PE) to get your ticket punched and make your way out of high school. But I think I would have learned more if it had been related to something else. Like food.

Flash forward a few decades to when I gave a lesson in bread-making to my daughter’s second grade class. It’s a perfect basic chemistry lesson for kids: simple enough to be reduced to 7-year-old level, but tied to something familiar (better yet, edible). I just came across the handout I did for the class, which is what put me in mind of it.

And this morning, spurred by an article in NY Times Cooking, I made sauerkraut. It is ridiculously easy: cut up a head of cabbage, put resulting shreds in a bowl, “massage” (the NYT term, not mine) two tablespoons of Kosher salt into the shreds for five minutes, until the cabbage starts to soften, reduce down, and release some liquid. Then pack into jars and stir every couple of hours, to speed fermentation. All the time I was up to my elbows in cabbage I kept wondering 1) is this really going to work? and 2) why does it work. So as soon as I had packed the cabbage into its jars and cleaned up the mayhem that cutting up cabbage produces, I hied me to the internet.

According to the Clemson University website, “Cabbage is converted to sauerkraut due to growth and acid production by a succession of lactic acid bacteria. Salt and limited air creates desirable conditions for the leuconostocs – a group of less acid tolerant lactic acid bacteria that grow better at 60°F to 70°F.” Fortunately for my sauerkraut, the winter temperature of my kitchen is somewhere around 65°. The salt works–as I noted as I worked–to soften and draw juice from the cabbage. As a bonus, it also works to keep undesirable bacteria at bay; you want the desirable bacteria, of course: the leuconostoc lactic acid bacteria that create lactic acid. 

See? Chemistry!

The Clemson site gives a recipe that requires 25 pounds of cabbage and yields 9 quarts. I suspect that once my much more modest batch has fermented fully, it will be something closer to a quart and a half.

All of this reminds me that I need to make a batch of bread and butter pickles. For science!

Australian Gothic

This week is just a small post, because I’m a bit pressed for time. When I am less pressed for time and when things are able to be announced, all will become clear. While you wait, you might want to think about the Middle Ages and about the Blue Mountains, not far from Sydney. Or you could ponder my published writing from last year, in the hopes that thinking about it will stave off new published work. Keeping peril at bay…

A friend and I talk about Australian Gothic as a style of story quite frequently (she’s an academic who specialises in Australian fiction, and it’s always loads of fun to chat with her) and she happened to mention a story of mine in relation to it. The story is “Ignore the Dead Bodies, Please” and it’s in the Narrelle Harris and Katya de Becerra anthology This Fresh Hell. Australian Gothic goes back to the nineteenth century, when local writers discovered they could create a whole new sub-genre by simply writing about the everyday. Australia is not the same as other continents, and for people whose ancestors are from Europe, it’s very easy to turn this not-sameness into something subtly creepy or even outright terrifying. On some days, a kangaroo looking straight at you is sufficient to create gentle nightmares.

Today’s question was whether my story is Australian Gothic? Or is it a satire of traditional sorrow? Actually, it’s both. And neither.

The forest setting I used is typical of an Australian Gothic setting. Trees are not uncommon in the sub-genre. The fact that the forest is a real one where murders actually happened is very much Australian Gothic, but the fact that it’s a forest specifically grown for tree harvesting is not. The fact that I brought the two together was me seeing what would happen if I included at least two variants on each and every theme. I did this the whole way through. It should be possible, if I’ve done my job right, to read the story from at least three directions. The first reading, however, should be for fun and for the frisson.

There are otherworldly beings in the story, of course, but I’ve kept them just a fraction away from the Australian Gothic… on purpose. I’ve given too much information for some and too little for others and been really rude about the worship of dark forces.

All this is quite intentional. Narrelle and Katya wanted stories that turned tropes around. I hate stories about certain types of bigotry, so of course I wrote one. I love Australian Gothic, so of course I wrote that, too. Mostly, however, I followed paths that were not very respectful and made a story that is its own. If you want a real horror story, look into the actual history of Belanglo Forest.

Protecting Democracy

I read an article in Vox the other day that pointed out that electoral democracy is relatively new in human history.

It makes a good point. According to the article, the United States is the world’s oldest continuous democracy. If you take the adoption of the Constitution as the starting date for that (1789), the U.S. has been a democracy for about 235 years.

And of course, there were a lot of flaws in U.S. democracy even early on. We started with a society where only white men could vote (in many cases, only white men with property) and it took a civil war when we were less than a hundred years old to change our Constitution sufficiently to expand that vote (and add in some other significant rights, including due process of law and birthright citizenship) to Black men.

Women didn’t get to vote until 1920.

Of course, since Reconstruction – which was supposed to make sure that the formerly enslaved got their rights – was killed twelve years after that war in political compromises with the traitors, Black people in most places didn’t get to vote until the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. That’s about 60 years ago, for those of you who didn’t live through that time.

It can be argued that the U.S. only approached being a fully functioning democracy in the 1960s. Given that white supremacists and other right-wing extremists have been trying to roll back the rights expanded back then ever since, it’s not hard to see that even in the oldest continuous democracy, the idea that everyone should have a say in who governs is still fragile.

When I look at our current ridiculous political situation that way, I find it easier to cope. Though I must say that even though I left behind the idea of American exceptionalism a long time ago (despite being immersed in it from childhood even in a liberal family), I did tend to believe in the exceptionalism of the changes we made in the second half of the 20th Century.

I thought the victories represented by the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were more permanent than they’ve turned out to be. Continue reading “Protecting Democracy”

The Green Skies of Mars and Other Astronomical Wonders

Astronauts on Mars may see a green sky, eerie new study suggests


Using the European Space Agency‘s (ESA) ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), scientists have observed Mars‘ atmosphere glowing green for the first time ever — in the visible light spectrum, that is. The effect is called airglow (or dayglow or nightglow, depending on the hour). Nightglow “occurs when two oxygen atoms combine to form an oxygen molecule,” according to ESA. On Mars, this happens at an altitude of approximately 31 miles (50 km). Scientists have suspected Mars to have airglow for some 40 years, but the first observation only occurred a decade ago by ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, which detected the phenomenon in the infrared spectrum. Then, in 2020, scientists observed the phenomenon in visible light using TGO, but in Martian daylight rather than at night. Now, we’ve seen the phenomenon at night via TGO.

Moon is 40 million years older than we thought, tiny crystals from Apollo mission confirm

The moon is at least 40 million years older than we once thought, a new study reveals. Scientists confirmed our cosmic companion’s new minimum age after reanalyzing tiny impact crystals from lunar samples taken by NASA’s Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Earth is approximately 4.54 billion years old. So based on the newest study, the zircon crystals were formed around 80 million years after our planet formed. However, the collision that birthed the moon could have actually happened even earlier. After the Earth-Thea crash, the infant moon’s surface would have been covered by a magma ocean due to the intense energy of the collision. Therefore, the lunar zircon crystals could only have properly solidified into their current state once the magma ocean had cooled down.

The oldest continents in the Milky Way may be 5 billion years older than Earth’s

Astrobiologists think a planet needs to have certain features to support life: oxygen in its atmosphere, something to shield organisms from dangerous radiation and liquid water, for a start. Although big land masses aren’t strictly necessary for living things to emerge, Earth’s history shows that they’re important for life to thrive and exist for long periods of time. So, if an exoplanet had continents before Earth, it follows that there might be older, more advanced life on that world.

This line of thought led Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University astronomer in the U.K., to answer the question: When did the first continents appear on a planet in our galaxy? Turns out, two exoplanets’ continents — and perhaps life — may have arisen four to five billion years before Earth’s.

Can a Dead Star Keep Exploding?
If the Tasmanian Devil is a type of dead star, it’s not behaving like the others. As a dead star, the light coming from it could signal its transition into a sort of stellar afterlife. It could be a new type of stellar corpse.
“Because the corpse is not just sitting there, it’s active and doing things that we can detect,” Ho said. “We think these flares could be coming from one of these newly formed corpses, which gives us a way to study their properties when they’ve just been formed.”
The Echoes From Inflation Could Still Be Shaking the Cosmos Today
In the very early universe, physics was weird. A process known as “inflation,” where best we understand the universe went from a single infinitesimal point to everything we see today, was one such instance of that weird physics. Now, scientists from the Chinese Academy of Science have sifted through 15 years of pulsar timing data in order to put some constraints on what that physics looks like.
Life Might Be Easiest to Find on Planets that Match an Earlier Earth

When methane (CH4) and oxygen (O2) are both present in an atmosphere, it’s an indication that life is at work. That’s because, in an oxygen environment, methane only lasts about 10 years. Its presence indicates disequilibrium. For it to be present, it has to be continually replenished in amounts that only life can produce.

Continue reading “The Green Skies of Mars and Other Astronomical Wonders”