Culture and science fiction conventions

I wrote out many thoughts on last weekend’s World Fantasy Convention, but something rather important has come up and I need to talk about it. It’s related to World Fantasy, true, but it’s also related to many other online conventions this year.

People from all over the world dropping in to take tea and chat can be delightful… but can also cause problems. No convention has been entirely without problems and no convention has been entirely without moments when cultures have come together and produced fascinating and useful conversations.

I could cause more problems if I listed the issues each and every convention has had or say nice things about the terrific conversations, but I shan’t do either. Instead, I shall give a small list of quite specific ideas to consider. These are the kinds of discussions that program people have or should have. (I’ve had them when programming. And yes, I made mistakes. The world is a big place and full of exceptional complexities.)

1. How do countries see their own various cultures? We can’t just take our own views and use them as a framework for the description of others. My favourite example of this is that people of Korean ancestry are from the dominant culture in Korea and the opposite in the US: a Korean and a Korean American have completely different experience in terms of prejudice and who society favours.

2. How do minorities see themselves, explain themselves, and why? The example I give on panels is often me, myself and I, for I am not the same Jewish as US Jewish and have some very interesting life experiences to prove it. Ask me about them, and ask me what elements of Australian history pushed me towards my self-description as off-white.

3. In any community, who are the experts on matters of culture? I’ve spent a large chunk of my life working on these things and some con-runners know this and ask me to be on panels or for advice. Others… don’t. The variations on ‘don’t’ can be entertaining but often make me feel like an outsider. I have other things to do than spend more of my life as an outsider (I am one anyway, so I don’t need to accept the gift of more outsider status) and move on to other things. We are all different people. Ask around and find out who knows what. (Ask me what my new PhD topic is, I dare you. It includes the words ‘culture’ and ‘genre fiction’. Ask anyone researching what their research is about.)

4. There are procedures and guidelines for working with so many minority cultures in so many countries. My favourites look a bit like this: This and a set of writing guidelines have been produced by the owners of the culture in order to make it possible for the rest of us to write without appropriation. While not all cultures have documents of this sort, they often have people who can be asked. It would be very useful if possible panellists know about policies and protocols and politics. It would also be useful if they could explain how one works with people of this culture or that. However, none of us know everything. Panellists should all know their limitations. That’s the bottom line. We need to know who we can speak for and who we should defer to on a given subject.

This is not a list of ten. It could be, but those four subjects are immense and enough to be getting on with.

No Dogs on the Sofa! And for God’s Sake, Vote!

If there’s one firm rule we have in this house, it’s that the dogs are not allowed on the sofa unless specifically invited. How, then, to explain this:

No dogs on sofa, Jack!

And this:

No dogs on sofa, Duff!

Also, no squirrels are allowed on the porch!

In case you wonder, I’m an emotional tightwire (like many of you), waiting to find out what’s going to happen on  U.S. election day—or, more likely, several weeks after election day. Will we step back from the precipice we’re dancing on? Will we put responsible adults in charge in Washington? Before we all die of Covid or drown in the melting ice caps? Will we save our democracy from our worst impulses?

I can’t stand the wait, and that’s why we’re getting dog pictures on the day before the election.

Car Culture

Lincoln Continental Convertible[I wrote this a few years back and published it on another blog. It’s still relevant.]

When I was sixteen, I developed a passion for a yellow Lincoln Continental convertible with a black leather interior. Not a Corvette, which was the hot car of my youth (why, yes, I did watch Route 66), or one of the adorable tiny English sports cars of the ’60s. A Lincoln Continental, the ultimate land yacht.

In my dreams, I would have this car by my mid-20s, when I’d be living in Kemah, Texas (on Galveston Bay), and working at some job or another (the details of employment were not part of this fantasy, though it must have been well-paid). I would also have a shrimp boat, though I wouldn’t be a working shrimper.

Why a shrimp boat, you may ask? Possibly because I really, really liked (and like) to eat shrimp. But also because it wasn’t the sort of boat the wealthy acquired. That is, I wanted a rich person’s car, but a working person’s boat.

It should go without saying that I never achieved this dream. In my mid-20s I was finishing law school and pretty much broke. The car I did have – a Plymouth Valiant – had bit the dust and I was commuting around Austin by bicycle.

Even if I’d had the money, I didn’t want that car or that lifestyle by that time. Kemah was no longer a sleepy bay town but a bustling suburb and I had developed my life-long allergy to commuting. And I had other dreams, few of which involved cars. Continue reading “Car Culture”

Car, parked.

carOn March 13, I filled the car with gas because we were planning a trip to visit my sweetheart’s mother for her 90th birthday. But the next day we both woke up feeling a little under the weather, so we decided we shouldn’t go.

Four days later, the Bay Area set up a shelter-in-place to slow down the pandemic.

I haven’t put gas in the car since. According to the gauge, there’s about three-quarters of a tank available.

At a rough guess, I’ve driven the car about a hundred miles in the last six and a half months. To put that in perspective, I’ve walked about 850 miles in that same period.

Now it’s not unusual for me to walk more than I drive when I’m not traveling. I live in a very walkable neighborhood. And I’m even driving to run some errands right now; when you buy two weeks worth of groceries at once or are picking up a farm box instead of browsing the booths at the farmer’s market, a car is useful. Continue reading “Car, parked.”

Rip van Winkle versus the Spaceship

I’m dreaming of spaceships today. I want to write a story set in one.

I need to write a story. It’s only Tuesday here and my New Year is on Friday and I’m writing your post nearly a week early because of that festival. I was going to tell you all about Medieval Jewish foodways in western Europe and about modem Jewish foodways in Australia and I was going to make you cravingly hungry for honeycake. I’m derailing the whole conversation (one I haven’t yet begun) because of my dream of spaceships.

I won’t tell you the dream itself, for it’s going into a short story, later today. One short story set in a spaceship and I ought to be caught up on all my new fiction for Jewish New Year. What I want to talk about is the alternate path the dream did not take.

Before 2020, I assumed that if someone were inside for months on end, when they went outside, finally, I would have a Rip van Winkle experience. I would emerge to a strange place I did not recognise: the rest of the world would have moved on.

This is not at all what happened when I went to medical appointments last week. Sure, the streets look at bit different. I emerged to a financial recession, after all, where the strict COVID limits on who can do what. Overcrowding is rare and people are more scattered. There are crosses and lines to mark safety.

I knew about these changes, however, before I encountered them. Rip van Winkle emerged to a place he did not know and that he did not understand. While he was asleep, he was out of sync with the outside world.

It would take an active choice to be out of sync right now. Or a second terrible moment, like the wildfires in the US or riots or… a great deal of what’s happening in the world right now. Multiply the peril and one’s focus turns to keeping going. I suspect the US has many Rips right now.

Given my last twelve months, I assumed that this is what would happen to me. That I would emerge into a changed world and I would not belong to it at all. When I found that this wasn’t at all true, I needed another metaphor. Washington Irving failed me. It’s tragic that he did not fail the US.

I explained my situation a bit more clearly to a neighbour’s friend when I put my rubbish out (this was such a big accomplishment! Once this statement would have been sarcastic – right now it requires the exclamation mark.). My neighbour’s friend failed me in a different way when I emerged.

When we told each other what we did for a living and I said I was a writer, he took my earlier admission of disability to mean that I filled in my time writing. He was nice about me turning my disabled state to good use.

This was when I fell out of sync with the world. Had working for a living changed since I last spoke to a stranger? He moved off the ‘occupation for a person with disabilities’ and onto the ‘does this out of passion’ thing. If we meet a few more times, maybe he’ll see the professional side of writing, and understand that being disabled doesn’t actually mean having a lesser life. It’s a life with restrictions and much medical stuff, but it’s capable of being amazingly rich. Mine is that life. I commented to him that I was bored for a whole hour earlier this year and I looked at the boredom and examined it closely and exclaimed in wonder at it and that is when I discovered that I was no longer bored.

This is why I had the spaceship dream.

I was never Rip van Winkle. I’m in a small spaceship. I can talk to other people and am in touch with the whole world of I want to be, but I’m in a spaceship. No dinner parties. No long chats with friends around a pot of tea. No long walks in the spring sunshine. But I know what’s happening and can be a part of it. It’s only my physical presence in a place other than my spaceship that’s not a given.

Working Together

It’s time to let go of the myth of the lone genius. It carries too much weight in our world. In real life, nothing gets done by one person.

There are visionaries and leaders, don’t get me wrong. But they can’t accomplish things without a team. A lone genius who doesn’t have support from others cannot change the world.

This is true whether the goals are good or bad. The people out to do evil don’t do it alone, either. Trump would not be in power without all the people who jump to do his bidding.

Take energy – a significant issue since it is so tied to climate change (and right now here in the Western US, we are well aware of climate change). Right now there are millions of people world-wide working on thousands of ways to produce energy from renewable sources and also on thousands of ways of improving the efficiency of the necessary appliances and tools that we use. Continue reading “Working Together”

On Cruelty, Poverty, and Hierarchy

On Deep History and the BrainThe cruelty is the point. People keep saying that about the criminal occupying our White House, the Republicans in general, the Kochs and their fellow oligarchs, and the others who hold a lot of power in the United States right now.

It’s hard for me to fathom that attitude, but I’m beginning to think it’s true.

I just read historian Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain, a very thought-provoking book that takes history far beyond the Western Civ I learned in school.

He mentions the castellans, 11th and 12th century men who built or took over a castle, hired a bunch of thugs to defend it, and terrorized the people around into working for them. Random cruelty works.

Right now in the United States we have a lot of people in power who think like castellans.

Smail also quotes Robert Sapolsky: “When humans invented poverty, they came up with a way of subjugating the low-ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world.” Continue reading “On Cruelty, Poverty, and Hierarchy”

I can’t stop wondering if other peoples’ lives are this confusing

I was trying to explain to a friend today, that my life is so rollercoaster that I couldn’t catch him up on the last three weeks. I’d just caught him up on maybe a third of it, with much hand gesturing and discussion. He didn’t think my life was playing rollercoaster games with me. It’s normal, he said.

If it’s normal, I worry about the world. One day recently, eight nasty little things happened to me before breakfast and spellcheck offered me ‘tetchy’ instead of an entirely different word. I wanted to accept ‘tetchy’ then. That same day, I received one of those phone calls that ends with, “Don’t tell anyone. This is under embargo.” The embargo  is over and I can tell you: I’ve been given a government grant to write. And I’d just told the world I was tetchy. I had eight reasons for being tetchy and now I have one reason for having a sigh of relief. Income is a magic thing.

The next bit of rollercoaster was entirely exhaustion with being inside. The place I live in may be short on COVID, but I am vulnerable and my various doctors tell me I will be in iso for a long time to come. Sometimes I become rebellious. This time I found an historical drama (the ‘an’ is to remind you of my accent) that is 50 one hour episodes long and that depicts a part of the Middle Ages I’m little-acquainted with. Six Flying Dragons and the Korean fourteenth century. I can still pick some holes in it and there is so much to learn about how Korea likes to tell its own stories and so it’s relaxing.

K-drama was performing its magic and I was thinking, “I, too, can have an even keel of a life.” Unless my friend is wrong and other people have placid days from time to time. For it seems I can’t. The minute I thought I could I had to give up seven phials of blood to medical diagnosis. I went into a shop on the way home. The shop with no-one else except one salesperson, and we stayed clear of each other, so I can tell my doctor next week “I didn’t betray you, truly – I wore a mask and didn’t come within 2 metres of anyone.

My unexpected trip outside the flat taught me that Australia is getting very few shipments from SE Asia. I have lots of ginger tea and not a scrap of the spices I went in for.

I also have moon cakes. Normally the moon cakes come from Hong Kong or from Singapore. These might have been from Hong Kong, but they are labelled ‘China’ and are standard white lotus ones with much eggyolk. These will be my special treat for the next month, then the tin ends up storing food in my pantry. Moon cake tins stack and they have good seals, and each year I get just one. I was thinking that flour would be good to store  in this one, but it’s too pretty.

I couldn’t get my Javanese coffee. Kopi Jawa is a particular roast and a particular brand from Indonesia. I was taught to make it in a way that works like instant coffee but with a much better flavour, and it’s great for when I’m lazy, or tired or sick or all three. There was a void on the shelf where it belonged.

It’s odd to find what’s around and what isn’t. It’s stranger walking through a shop with shelves that look as if they belong to the seventies than it is to shop online.

I ought to explain the seventies thing. Australia in the seventies had strikes. We imported a lot of things – we still do – and the strikes meant unpredictably empty shelves. This means I have techniques for dealing when my favourite Japanese spice mix is missing, but I’d rather have the spices.

When I came home I found the best and nicest email in my in-box.

I’m on panels at NASFiC. So many conference organisers are learning (in a great hurry) how to create magic online events. This one is free (though donations help) and it starts on Friday and half of it is in the middle of my night. I would normally attend the Australian equivalent, but the Australian equivalent is nothing like NASFiC and I’m so much looking forward to it.

I’m not talking about nine-tenths of what happens. This erratic movement from amazing to mundane to terrible to brilliant is my everyday.

The funny side is iso in a flat. I see people through Zoom or other programs, and I speak a lot on the phone, and I shout at my television when the writing is bad, but otherwise, I am alone. So much alone. And so busy and so rollercoastery and running and hopping to keep up. Some days I suspect plants are fictional. Other days I’m pretty certain that the outside world is a figment of my imagination.

I don’t always have enough time for my imagination. The day NASFiC ends, for instance, I have to edit a book I wrote with another government grant early this year. The grants are not very big but, to be honest, when it’s just me and my computer and my living room and the kitchen (far too close, because I like cooking and cooking likes my waist) the grants don’t have to be big.

My rollercoaster has some very deep dips in it, which you (honestly, trust me on this) don’t need to know about. The nuggets of gold and nodules of gem take me to the heights, and it’s much easier to deal with bad things when one has occasional views of a bigger world and when there are whole months at a time when bills can be paid. This year, the lows are giant hollows cut into a mountain and when I’m there I feel as if there is no outside world and no hope. The highs, however, are exceptional.

I still want to know if my friend is right about everyone having eight nasty things to handle before breakfast and one gloriously brilliant thing after breakfast and if the transformation from tetch to thinking there will be a future is very sudden and possibly uncomfortable. I’d like to know that. Mind you, I’d also like to know ten more languages and have forty hours extra each day and good eyes so that I can read ALL the wonderful stories in them. I’d like lots of things. Not this week yet. This week is busy.

Exams and Cheating

At the beginning of R.F. Kuang’s novel The Poppy War (which I just started, so this isn’t a review), the main character Rin must strip naked and be patted down before taking an exam. She can’t even wear her own clothes into the exam room.

I immediately harkened back to reports that the Texas Bar and those of several other states were prohibiting those taking the bar exam from bringing their own tampons or pads with them to the exam. Since those reports came out, the Texas Bar has relented to the extent that it will allow women to bring their own products in a clear plastic bag (a la the ones you use for your liquids at the airport).

In both cases, the authorities are obsessed with preventing the test takers from cheating. I don’t know if there is a good argument for the exam in the world of Kuang’s novel, though given the amount of ugliness and corruption hinted at so far, I suspect the test is mostly a tool for keeping out the riff-raff, and might not be the best way to determine who should receive higher education.

But I have taken a bar exam – the Texas one, in fact – and can tell you that it is essentially a hazing ritual, a tool to make you put in a lot of wasted hours studying for the test, which is not the same as studying how the law works, so that you can show you are willing to do a lot of meaningless work to put “Attorney at Law” after your name.

When I read about the tampon rule, my first reaction, even before reacting to the misogyny and silliness, was “they’re giving an in-person bar exam during the pandemic? In Texas, where the pandemic is pretty much out of control right now?” Continue reading “Exams and Cheating”

[political rant] Right Wing Media, Disinformation, and the Pandemic

I don’t often post political stuff. My readers may remember the series of posts, “In Troubled Times,” as I walked/crawled/screamed through my reactions to the unfolding events of the 2016 election. A more current version would be entitled, “In Perilous Times,” and has been on my mind. To get the discussion started, here are some thoughts on how the right-wing media and conspiracy theorists spread disinformation that resulted in a much worse pandemic in the US.

From The New York Times 7/28 morning report:

Why is the U.S. enduring a far more severe virus outbreak than any other rich country?
There are multiple causes, but one of them is the size and strength of right-wing media organizations that frequently broadcast falsehoods. The result is confusion among many Americans about scientific facts that are widely accepted, across the political spectrum, in other countries.
Canada, Japan and much of Europe have no equivalent to Sinclair — whose local newscasts reach about 40 percent of Americans — or Fox News. Germany and France have widely read blogs that promote conspiracy theories. “But none of them have the reach and the funding of Fox or Sinclair,” Monika Pronczuk, a Times reporter based in Europe, told me.
Fox is particularly important, because it has also influenced President Trump’s response to the virus, which has been slower and less consistent than that of many other world leaders. “Trump repeatedly failed to act to tame the spread, even though that would have helped him politically,” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has written. The headline on Sargent’s opinion column is: “How Fox News may be destroying Trump’s re-election hopes.”
Another factor creating confusion: The lack of an aggressive response to virus misinformation from Facebook and YouTube. Judd Legum, author of the Popular Information newsletter, has identified some of this misinformation, and the two companies have responded by removing the posts he cited. But Legum told me he had pointed out only a small fraction of the false information, and the companies had done relatively little to remove it proactively.
Twitter took a slightly more aggressive step yesterday, putting temporary limits on the account of Donald Trump Jr. after he shared the false Breitbart video.