Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Because I'll be gone most of the day doing medical things, and because throwing Cute at you is acceptable once a year, and because, hey, there's no Tuesday on earth that can't be improved by kittens, here you go:

(Via @cstross)

Enjoy. I'll be back tomorrow with the usual programme of books, science, history, beer, and gender politics.

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Monday, July 30, 2012

Sharks vs. Christmas tree ornaments

This is for those friends of mine who love non-cuddly beasties. (I have a surprising number.) From the London Review of Books:

‘Many scientists don’t like to talk about shark sex,’ Juliet Eilperin writes in her entertaining study of sharks and their world. ‘They worry it will only reinforce the popular perception that these creatures are brutish and unrelenting.’ In as far as we understand the subject – only a few species have been observed mating – the business is ‘very rough’. Larger male sharks have to bite or trap the females to keep them around during courtship; marine biologists can tell when a female has been mating because her skin will be raw or bleeding. The process is so violent that, come the mating season, female nurse sharks will stay in shallow water with their reproductive openings pressed firmly to the sea floor. Otherwise they risk falling prey to roaming bands of males who ‘will take turns inserting their claspers in her’ (the clasper is the shark version of a penis, found in a pair behind the pelvic fins). A litter of fifty pups will have anything from two to seven fathers. But the reproductive story gets rougher still. A number of shark species go in for oophagy, or uterine cannibalism. Sand tiger foetuses ‘eat each other in utero, acting out the harshest form of sibling rivalry imaginable’. Only two babies emerge, one from each of the mother shark’s uteruses: the survivors have eaten everything else. ‘A female sand tiger gives birth to a baby that’s already a metre long and an experienced killer,’ explains Demian Chapman, an expert on the subject.
But do bear in mind:
[S]hark attacks are an exotic rarity. There were 75 verified shark attacks last year, and 12 fatalities. Even in the US, a global hotspot, you are forty times more likely to be hospitalised by a Christmas tree ornament than by a shark.
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Sunday, July 29, 2012

E.L. James vs. King James

This caught my eye the other day (from the Westmorland Gazette):
E.L. James vs. King James:

A HOTEL boss has swapped Bibles in his bedrooms for copies of the raunchy novel Fifty Shades of Grey – and the local vicar is not happy.
The Rev Michael Woodcock spoke of his dismay after hearing about the book of choice at the Damson Dene Hotel, Crosthwaite.
He said it was 'a great shame' to replace the Gideon Bibles at the rural retreat with an explicit, erotic novel.
Hotel manager Wayne Bartholomew said the move to install the steamy bestseller was in response to popular demand.
I find Bibles in hotel rooms annoying--they take up half the space in the bedside drawer that I need for other things. But they're such a part of the cultural furniture that I don't find them offensive, despite some of the horrors between the covers. There again, I don't get offended easily. I do get pissed off. (For some that's a subtle distinctin. The verb offend makes me think of prissy, purse-mouthed repressives, the kind of people who actively seek out situations that will register on their offend-o-meter. Perhaps I'm over-thinking this.) However, I suspect that if someone unexpectedly foisted Fifty Shades of Grey upon me I wouldn't be pleased.

I'm not a fan of bad writing, even less of powerful-boy-dominant-on-not-powerful-girl-submissive SM fiction. It (cough) reinforces the master narrative, the dominant paradigm. In other words, it's a cliché. And you all know I find clichés pernicious. And Fifty Shades hasn't been around long enough for me to become inured to it.

So if you ran a boutique hotel popular with couples, what would you put in the  bedrooms? I think I'd choose a themed library of three or four books, a couple of pieces of art, and one or two films that would match each room. The Bronco Suite, for example, might have My Ántonia, a paperback by Louis L'Amour, and perhaps Molly Gloss's The Dazzle of Day. A painting or bronze by Remington to gaze at. And video streaming selections of Shane, Brokeback Mountain, and something with John Wayne or Gary Cooper. I'm drawing a blank on music. Any thoughts? On the hospitality tray, in addition to usual crappy snacks, there might be beef jerky and a couple of packets of chicory coffee. For a bit extra, guests could rent chaps, hat, and a rope...

...You see what even mentioning that bloody book does to one's thought train? Clichés are infectious. Tuh.
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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sly, surreal eccentricity: opening ceremonies

The Danny Boyle-directed Olympics Opening Ceremony was, well, Britain on acid. Or maybe ecstasy. A wild, weird and wonderful party. With great music.

I loved some of it, especially the corny bits. I cleared my throat a lot and wiped my eyes surreptitiously when the children sang the songs from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Those are my songs; I sang them all as a child. I coughed and swallowed when all those fine social justice types carried the Olympic flag around the stadium. I am a sucker for the-best-we-can-be stuff. However, I did find  some of the show rather baffling--the dancing nightmare monsters, the jitterbugging medics--which I'm guessing people without intimate knowledge of British children's literature or the NHS found mystifying. Americans could probably keep up, mostly (Mary Poppins floating in to save the day, er, night is at least a recognisable figure) but viewers from Tanzania or Uzbekistan: maybe not so much. The modern-day love story didn't work for me, either. Though I did enjoy seeing the two women kiss in the montage. Sir Paul and "Hey Jude"... Well, if I had to guess why Boyle chose that song it was so that audience members had something to sing along to that didn't require knowing any lyrics. " na na na-na-na naa..." is easy enough for most people to remember. And there's nothing as community-building as a sing-along. The people in the stadium probably felt the glow of universal love. At home? Eh, the song seemed to go on a bit too long.

My favourite bits? James Bond and the Queen, of course. Closely followed by the Bohemian Rhapsody clips. I enjoyed watching Rowan Atkinson subvert the schmaltzy Chariots of Fire sequence. The nod to Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the internet, could have been better, but I'm glad it was there. The doves on bikes were very cool, as was the athlete shown in tiny LED panels running around the stadium seating. Also high on the list of Good Things: the depiction of Britain as  multi-cultural nation, and the very, very cool copper buds/petals that made up the Olympic cauldron. But for me what epitomised the show was the forging of the Olympic rings: a unique mix of technology, imaginative staging, and potent symbolism: the joining of light, movement, northern industrialism, and the Olympic spirit. Very British: mighty, but not too expensive.

I don't think anyone but a director born and bred in the north of England could have conceived this show. The music, the patriotism, the belief in world systems along with a hint of outsider-ism, and, over all, the sly acknowledgement that it's all a bit of lark, really, and needs to have the mickey taken out of itself. Boyle himself summed it up neatly: "sly, surreal eccentricity."

Tonight I'll drink a toast to The North: the place and the people who started the Industrial Revolution (and not a few political revolutions) that make us who we are today.

I loved it.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

DOMA is going down: but when, and what then?

Yesterday I read this article from The Advocate

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn filed a brief Wednesday joining their constituent, Edith Windsor, in asking the Supreme Court to hear her challenge against the Defense of Marriage Act.
Windsor, 83, is suing the federal government over $363,000 in estate taxes she was forced to pay after her spouse, Thea Spyer, died in 2009. The couple was together for more than 40 years and had married in Canada in 2007, but because of section 3 of DOMA, the federal government did not recognize their marriage.
Now that Chief Justice Kennedy has shown that it really does matter to him how the court's decisions play to the citizenry, I don't see how the court can let DOMA stand. Opponents of the law are finding better cases to hold up as examples of its inherent un-Americaness. There are at least three cases heading to the court that stand a good chance of triggering a decision to quash DOMA.

Depending on which case gets there first, they could rule against DOMA 6-3. As far as I'm concerned, the only questions worth asking are: When? and What then?

I'd love to hear some thoughtful guesses on both questions. Here are mine:

When: 2013
What then: it depends on Congress (that is, which party has the majority in House and Senate); it depends on the political leanings of individual States. I believe that in terms of federal-worker benefits, immigration, and tax and inheritance laws, by 2014 we'll have parity--at least those of us who are legally married in our home states. And that's the rub: it will take a long time for states to accept other states' marriages. (Perhaps I should take bets on which will be the last holdouts: Alabama? Mississippi?) There will be a series of protracted battles. But at some point--faster than anyone believes possible right now, because marriage equality is the fastest equal-rights social change this country has ever experienced, and it's still gathering momentum--there will be a sea change. And every lesbian and gay man in this country will be able to marry their sweetie. (Providing, of course, that they're of legal age, not already married, etc.)

It's at this point that there will be an end to discrimination against queers--employers will no longer be able to get rid of you for kissing your girlfriend; landlords will no longer be able to throw you on the street for holding your boyfriend. And at this point, too, there will be an end to discrimination against trans people.

It will be soon, but I wish it were sooner. What diminishes some diminishes us all. I want equality, human rights, human dignity, for all QUILTBAG people.
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Thursday, July 26, 2012

A scientific breakthrough that will revolutionise archaeological epidemiology

My friend, Dr Angelique Corthals, has a new paper out. (Perhaps you recall her last one, which caused a stir by asserting that MS is a metabolic disorder.) This is another cracker: she and her team are the first to have detected an immune response in a mummy using proteomics. (Proteomics decodes proteins rather than DNA--which is an investigative method prone to contamination, especially when a sample is old and much-exposed to the vagaries of time.)

Here's the abstract of the paper, "Detecting the Immune System Response of a 500 Year-Old Inca Mummy," just published in in PLoS ONE:

Disease detection in historical samples currently relies on DNA extraction and amplification, or immunoassays. These techniques only establish pathogen presence rather than active disease. We report the first use of shotgun proteomics to detect the protein expression profile of buccal swabs and cloth samples from two 500-year-old Andean mummies. The profile of one of the mummies is consistent with immune system response to severe pulmonary bacterial infection at the time of death. Presence of a probably pathogenic Mycobacterium sp. in one buccal swab was confirmed by DNA amplification, sequencing, and phylogenetic analyses. Our study provides positive evidence of active pathogenic infection in an ancient sample for the first time. The protocol introduced here is less susceptible to contamination than DNA-based or immunoassay-based studies. In scarce forensic samples, shotgun proteomics narrows the range of pathogens to detect using DNA assays, reducing cost. This analytical technique can be broadly applied for detecting infection in ancient samples to answer questions on the historical ecology of specific pathogens, as well as in medico-legal cases when active pathogenic infection is suspected.
As the Stony Brook University Medical School press release notes, "Pathogen detection in human remains, including ancient ones, can help uncover mysteries of past diseases and epidemics and in determining cause of death. Techniques have been largely based on amplification of DNA from microbes. This process is effective for confirming the presence of a pathogen but not for determining if a person was ill with an infectious disease." Angelique explains why this is such an important breakthrough. "This approach opens a new door to ways in which scientists can more accurately solve some of history’s pressing medical mysteries, such as why the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 was so devastating, or what really caused such high mortality in Plague epidemics."

So now I just need some enterprising archaeologist to stumble over the body of Hild. We could learn so many things from her remains (yes, even 1,400 year-old remains): strontium levels in tooth enamel would tell us where she grew up. We could figure out what she ate. We could look at her skeleton and tell what kind of life she'd led: heavy labour, textile production, healthy leisure. And now we might also have a shot at identifying what she died of (my guess: malaria).

I love having smart friends. I love science.
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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Man Booker Prize 2012 longlist: zero novels by women about women

The 2012 Man Booker Prize longlist has been announced:

  • Nicola Barker, The Yips (Fourth Estate)
  • Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident (Sceptre)
  • André Brink, Philida (Harvill Secker)
  • Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)
  • Michael Frayn, Skios (Faber & Faber)
  • Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday)
  • Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories)
  • Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
  • Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)
  • Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)
  • Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)
  • Sam Thompson, Communion Town (Fourth Estate)
The website points out that the list includes "four debut novels, three small independent publishers and one previous winner. Of the 12 writers, seven are men and five women; nine are British, one Indian, one South African and one Malaysian. The eldest on the list is Michael Frayn at 78 and the youngest is Ned Beauman at 27." Plus, of course, someone called Nicola--which always pleases me. Though the fact that she's writing about the masculine psyche makes me sigh.

It also made me curious. I counted up who wrote about which sex (taken from publisher descriptions and sample chapters where available) and found:
  • 4 novels by men primarily about men
  • 4 novels by women primarily about men
  • 3 novels by men primarily about women
  • 2 books of stories--presumably including some women--by a man and a woman
The total comes to more than twelve because one book--Will Self's Umbrella--is about a man and a woman. So: two-thirds of these books are about men.

But to me the most interesting datum is this: zero novels by women about women. Zero. Draw your own conclusions.
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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sally Ride and Tam O'Shaughnessy

Sally Ride, the first woman from the west to go into space, died yesterday. And she came out in the obituary on her own website:

Sally Ride died peacefully on July 23rd, 2012 after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless.
In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.
So when I read this morning's Wall Street Journal I expected to at least see mention of Ms O'Shaughnessy--but the WSJ didn't play. Why?

The New York Times did, just. Other major outlets--such as CNN--also mentioned O'Shaughnessy.

But I would like to have seen a major newspaper tell us about how Sally Ride first met her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy, when they were twelve [note, this website plays commercials with sound--use your mute button]. I would like to have read about why she felt she had to marry a man for a few years. Did she love him? Was it a marriage of convenience? Would she have been accepted as an astronaut if she hadn't married him and looked 'normal' for the media? Would she have married O'Shaughnessy if she could? I don't know the answer to any of those questions. I would like to.

I hope someone writes a book. I hope Ms O'Shaunessy is willing to talk to a biographer and tell some home truths. We need these stories--if only to understand just how much the world (or at least this part of it) has changed in the last decade.
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Monday, July 23, 2012

You can have it all if you love to read

The lyrics say it all, really:

There's a story waiting to be told
Waiting for all of us, whether we're young or old
The story is in there if you take a look
Go 'head and and open up, the pages of a book...

Books can take you all over the world. They can take you to happiness and despair. They can lead you to learning. Go read one. Go love a book lover. Happy Monday.

This book lovers' theme song by Sara Ada, to publicise the fact that the New York State Reading Association is now accepting registration forms for their 2012 Conference in Syracuse NY. (Via Darlene Vendegna--thanks, Darlene.)

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ella Fitzgerald captures Sunday perfectly

The first song is "Something to Live For," written by Billy Strayhorn (who arranged the music, too, I think) and performed by Duke Ellington, his big band, and Ella Fizgerald. Not a song I know but I liked it, and I think we all know that yearning. The second is "Jazz Samba." I don't know who wrote it, but this performance is brilliant. Fantastic arrangement (again by Billy Strayhorn) and absolutely superlative vocals by Ella Fitzgerald--made all the more admirable by the occasional strain in her voice. We know it's human, not effortless.

This is how Sundays should feel: slightly melancholy and then marvelling at the heat and rhythm, the joy and reach life.

Enjoy yours.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Penguin, self-publishing, and analytics

Yesterday news hit of Pearson (parent company of Penguin) acquiring the self-publishing vendor Author Solutions. From Publishers Weekly:

In a move that can be traced to last year’s launch of Book Country, Penguin’s writer community and self-publishing venture, Pearson has acquired Author Solutions Inc.,one of the largest self-publishing ventures in the world, for $116 million from Bertram Capital. In a conference call from ASI’s headquarters in Bloomington, Ind., Penguin CEO John Makinson and ASI CEO Kevin Weiss, said the deal marks the “mainstreaming” of self-publishing, will provide Penguin with “scalable” data and expertise on self-publishing and offers opportunities for global growth and wider distribution to selected ASI authors through Penguin’s channels.
More than likely, Pearson are paying to acquire the expertise of ASI's database analysts. All trade publishers really, really need more information on who buys their books and how and why. There again, I'd thought that was the role Penguin had assigned to Book Country: to provide a window into the book-buying habits of their customers--or those who they probably should begin to see as their customers. That is, you, dear readers: individual buyers of books. (Traditional publishers' customers historically have been wholesalers and distributors, to a lesser degree retailers, and only very rarely individual customers.)
Makinson cited ASI’s expertise in "managing data analysis, online marketing and user-generated content," while Weiss said, "Penguin does distribution and curation." Makinson said that , "at first we didn’t understand rich consumer data, but we’re in the data analysis business now and ASI will give us a big lift with data analysis and online marketing. We’re gaining access to real scale, hundreds of thousands of customers and authors and ability to analyse across a large database."
Perhaps Book Country wasn't living up to Penguin's hopes. As a community for emerging writers, I think it's probably not too bad (though still young). As a publishing solution, a source of revenue or the right data to analyse, I'm guessing it's a failure. ASI's annual revenues, on the other hand, exceed $100m and, as noted, its staff are expert analysts. It wouldn't shock me if Book Country quietly folded its tent and was absorbed by the ASI encampment...
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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Long, lazy, and leisurely

Today has dawned light and bright, so I'm going to take the day off. A massage, a long, leisurely lunch, with wine, and a lazy afternoon with my sweetie.

I wish you much delight today. That is certainly my goal.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Britain goes for gold

I enjoyed an article this morning in the Wall Street Journal, "The Return of the British Empire."

Great Britain came home from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with just one gold medal—two fewer than Kazakhstan—and a wounded national psyche. Sixteen years later, Team GB has been overhauled and rebuilt thanks to a machine-like agency flush with cash from the U.K. lottery that grooms British athletes. The result could be a record-setting performance here for the home squad.
An organisation called Sport UK has set its sights on mowing down the opposition.
"This is not about taking part. It's about winning," said Liz Nicholl, chief executive of U.K. Sport, the agency tasked with winning Olympic medals for Britain.
This is pretty different to the usual British attitude of hapless enthusiasm for the underdog and the jolly good try, all packaged in well-mannered sportsmanship. There again, this time Brits are on their home field. Goldman Sachs & Co. calculates that this advantage could net 54% more medals as a result, and that Britain could win more gold medals than Russia this summer--putting it third on the medal league table overall.

I admit, I would enjoy that.

I was born in the second half of the twentieth-century, long after the British Empire's sun had set. As an adult, I understand that this is a Good Thing. Colonialism bad, equality good, etc. But as a kid, I grew up among people who openly mourned British greatness, who pointed to world maps and said, That used to be ours. Or They speak English there--a funny kind of English, but at least they understand about the rule of law. Or Oh, that country will turn out alright; after all, we founded it.

Somewhere in my DNA I think it's cool that the Queen is the head of state rather than some grubby little elected person. Yet I'm simultaneously smug that we have those elected people. (Yes, the formed-in-childhood-by-Rudyard-Kipling-Winston-Churchill-and-TV-histories-full-of-Pathé-newsreels interior voice sometimes talks like that. Don't worry, I'm aware of its attitudes and don't act from them. Mostly.)

Liz Nicholl sounds...straightforward. "Our no-compromise approach says we're not going to compromise."

Fair enough. I don't have a quarrel with that. Not exactly. But it's not very, well, British. It's much closer to the American approach: play within the letter of the law, not its spirit, and throw a lot of money at it. It's not that I have a quarrel with that, exactly, either. Nor am I about to maunder on about returning to the original spirit of the Olympics. If my understanding of history is correct, I wouldn't have enjoyed that much at all: the only women allowed near the Games were oracles and prostitutes. Besides, even back then, athletes were pampered specialists.

No, my hope is that ten days from now, the athletes in the spotlight, honed and fined-down and trained to within an inch of their lives, who have sacrificed a decade or more of a rich, rounded life to be on that field or track or mat, get some joy from the moment. I hope it's worth it. And I hope the crowds cheer them all on generously.

And in nine days I'll be watching events, cheering at home in Seattle for Team GB. Because, yeah, despite occasional evidence to the contrary, I still believe my small country is mighty. Great, in fact.
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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The indefatigable weirdness of '50s American science fiction

"These novels testify to the extraordinary range, profound intelligence, and indefatigable weirdness of ’50s American science fiction. A must-have for anyone interested in one of the most vital periods of our literature and for anyone who wants a wild wild tumble down the rabbit hole."—Junot Díaz

Diaz is talking about the two-volume collectionAmerican Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary Wolfe, coming in September from the Library of America. The novels are:
Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants
Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human
Leigh Brackett, The Long Tomorrow
Richard Matheson, The Shrinking Man
Robert A. Heinlein, Double Star
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
James Blish, A Case of Conscience
Algis Budrys, Who?
Fritz Leiber, The Big Time
Although you have to wait for the books, you don't have to wait for LOA's online companion to same. Gary Wolfe has curated a wonderful set of bonus materials, including audio and video snippters (interviews of the authors, broadcasts) for each novel--including short appreciations by living writers: William Gibson, Kit Reed, Tim Powers, Michael Dirda, Connie Willis, Peter Straub, James Morrow, Neil Gaiman, and me.

My piece is about Leigh Brackett. Those who have been reading this blog for a while know I also wrote the introduction to her Sword of Rhiannon. The more I learn about her and her work, the more I wish I could have met her. (As soon as I post this I'll be listening to her hour-long interview, recorded in 1975.) So I was delighted to have the excuse to reread, and then reread again more thoroughly, The Long Tomorrow. As a result, it wouldn't shock me to discover that this novel was a formative influence on the young Carl Sagan. Go read the piece to find out why.

I might have to buy this set. It's a hell of a collection--and I'm not sure I've ever read the Heinlein...
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Monday, July 16, 2012

Recreating the past, steering the future

When I was writing about the Polari prize the other day, I was reminded of a question that came up here both in context of that prize and as a comment on an earlier post about lesbian fiction:

I've been meaning to ask you in relation to your own work about a few others. I enjoyed earlier work by Emma Donoghue, Manda Scott and Stella Duffy. All fit into the category of authors who have written great books where the characters 'just happen' to be gay. In common with yourself, all have moved onto 'historical' fiction. Is this coincidence or do you think there is a specific reason/s?
I don't think its a coincidence.

Last month I talked about how I thought writing Hild was a huge risk but that I began anyway because I needed to tell her story. Adrienne Rich said, "We must use what we have to invent what we desire." (What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics) 

That's what I'm doing when I write: I'm inventing what I desire. I desire a vision of the world in which the woman I had imagined (after years of research) might have existed, in which she might have been able to live her life as a human being: as subject not object. I wanted to believe that the Hild I imagined was possible. To look at where we come from--the past--and believe we could have survived there as ourselves. By making Hild possible, I wanted to recast what people today think might be possible and so make it possible.

In other words, I'm recolonising the past. Recreating it. Retelling it. And by so doing, I'm recreating the present and so steering the future.

This is what history is: our interpretation of what happened. Our shared understanding of events in light of what we think/know/feel today. Our cultural attitudes inform our understanding of the past.

Our cultural attitude to gender has changed a great deal since Bede wrote his History of the English Church and People, the only extent source for the life of Hild that's even remotely contemporary. (Hild died four years after Bede was born.) I think she deserves a new story. It wouldn't shock me to discover that Manda Scott was similarly motivated on behalf of Boudica, and Stella Duffy for Theodora.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Me and my father

He's 86. He used to be half an inch taller than me. Now I'm a couple of inches taller than him. He used to be stronger than me. Then, while I was studying martial arts, I was stronger than him. (He didn't like that; in this way, we're similar.) Now, eh, given age and the vagaries of MS we're probably about the same.

This photo was taken in the Canal Gardens at Roundhay Park a couple of weeks ago. I'm horribly jet-lagged but very pleased to be with my father again so soon after my February visit.

As Kelley said when she looked at the photo she'd taken, "Whoa, look at that genetic stamp!" I think we get more alike every year. I haven't yet worked out how much I owe to my father, probably more than I realise. But I'll be thinking about that now.

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Polari First Book prize longlist and what it means

Via Diva, the longlist of the UK's Polari First Book prize:

Rory's Boys  by Alan Clark (Bliss/Arcadia Books)
Pennance by Claire Ashton (self published on Kindle)
The Frost Fairs by John McCullogh (Salt)
Becoming Nancy by Terry Ronald (Transworld)
Exit Through The Wound by North Morgan (Limehouse Books)
Body of Water by Stuart Wakefield (self published)
Modern Love by Max Wallis (Flap)
Ey Up and Away by Vicky Ryder (Wandering Star Press)
Grrl Alex by Alex Drummond, (self published)
Perking The Pansies by Jack Scott (Summertime Publishing)

Perhaps you remember that one of the judges, Suzi Feay, was worried recently about the lack of lesbian fiction submitted to the prize. Perhaps this is because it's almost always referred to as a gay fiction prize; most of the women I know don't think of themselves as gay but as queer or lesbians or dykes. Perhaps it's that, despite the notion that women writers in the UK have it far better than women in the US, lesbian writers in the UK are selecting themselves right out of the race. Perhaps many women these days, particularly newer, younger writers, prefer writing for performance: plays, slam poetry, songs, and so on. We are a social species; women, particularly, like to create, produce and perform in a groups.

From the names on the list, I'd guess that three of the ten finalists identify as women. That's a proportion that is far from satisfactory. It's not the judges' fault, they can't select what isn't submitted. So, once again, let me ask women writers to be brave, to begin. We need your voices.

If you're thinking about beginning, next year consider signing up for the Clarion West Write-a-thon (Wat). This year over 220 writers are taking part. Think about that: 220 people you can turn to for support. Clarion West encourages Wat writers to rely on the support of sponsors, it runs weekly Tweet chats, and updates a group Facebook page. Participants are encouraged to blog and tweet their progress. It turns out to be very useful for both established and emerging writers.

For more on how it works for one writer, see Kelley's marvellous blog posts about her experience last year and this.

ETA: Vicky Ryder's book is currently only available from her website.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Lesbian Super PAC

A couple of days ago I read this in the Huffington Post:

WASHINGTON -- Women including sports icon Billie Jean King and actress Jane Lynch are starting a super PAC on Wednesday that they hope will increase the political power of the lesbian community.
The organization, called LPAC, will provide financial backing to pro-lesbian candidates, whether Democrats or Republicans, male or female, gay or straight. The group intends to back federal and state candidates, as well as some ballot measures. All targets of the group's support must back an end to discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals; reproductive rights and access to quality health care; and social, racial and economic justice. [Thanks to Janet for the heads-up.]
The Guardian also has a good piece (with one caveat, keep reading).

I hope LPAC raises millions and millions of dollars. I hope they go out there and kick political arse. I hope they aren't shy about using their money to build alliances--or destroy enemies--and bring about change.

I love the notion of women flexing their political and financial muscle. I'm so very tired of women smiling bravely and loyally, and playing Nice.

Perhaps this is because playing nicely has never been one of my skills. I tend to play to win. Lately, of course, with Kelley's influence, I play for everyone to win--I love to build coalitions--but winning, of some variety, has always been part of my game. When I'm fighting my corner I don't have much need to be loved, or even liked. I already have plenty of friends; I have a partner; I have a big family. I've learnt that the best way to get what I want is to build mutual respect. Key word: mutual. So for those women reading this who haven't yet figured it out: don't be afraid of being disliked; you won't melt. It's better to be respected and admired. If that involves a little fear sometimes then, hey, that works, too. Get out there and take up space.

I am pleased, therefore, that these rich and powerful women are feeling their strength. And, no, I don't mean 'gay women'. I dislike that term. (I don't know when the Guardian started using it; I hope they get over it soon.) I am so very tired of always being the qualified noun, not the noun itself. (And, no, like 'man', let's not kid ourselves that 'gay' really includes women. I'll save you a rant on the subject; go read "Alien in Our Own Tongue.") The boys can have gay. We are dykes, or lesbians, or queer. And we have money, and power, and influence. Be afraid, be very afraid...
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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Go read some SF by women

Over at, Charlie Jane Anders has rounded up some opinions on the 10 SF novels people pretend to have read--and why you should actually read them:

Science fiction and fantasy offer a rich legacy of great books — from Asimov to Pynchon, there are some fantastic, ambitious works of genre fiction out there. But they're also daunting. So a lot of us just muddle through and pretend to have read these classics — which isn't that hard, because they're everywhere, and we've heard people talk about them so many times. We SF fans are good at pretending. But these books are classics for a reason — and they're worth reading.
We asked some of our favorite writers, and they told us the 10 science fiction and fantasy books that everybody pretends to have read — and the reasons why you should read them for real.Here they are, in no particular order.
talk about Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow, partly because I think it's an amazing book--though definitely flawed--partly because the info was to hand as I've just written a short essay on the book for the Library of America. More on that next week. For now, go add to your reading lists. Just remember, in the real world more than twenty percent of the books you should read are by women. For example, you couldn't go wrong by looking up the work of the other two women who comment in the piece, Pat Murphy and Pat Cadigan.

I admit I've only read half of these books. I have started two of the others and found them, for whatever reason, not to my taste; two I haven't even bothered with because I know, from the authors' other works, I wouldn't care for them. One I keep meaning to try and forgetting. Perhaps I'll move it up the list: it's by a woman.
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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Update on same-sex marriage in Washington State

As I've said previously, Referendum 74 made the ballot. But Initiative 1192--which could have proved confusing to those voting on same-sex marriage--has failed.

Currently, the local organisation supporting SSM (Washington United for Marriage) has so far raised about fifteen times the amount raised by the local opposition (Preserve Marriage Washington):

OLYMPIA — Supporters of gay marriage in Washington said Monday they raised more than $952,000 last month for the campaign to uphold the state's new law, which is on hold pending the outcome of a November ballot measure.
I'm not sure how useful this ratio is, as I'd be shocked if national groups (such as the anti-equality National Organization for Marriage, and the pro-equality Freedom to Marry) didn't step in closer to the time. I'm looking forward (not) to the vile political ads likely to run throughout October. Luckily we don't watch much local programming, and there's always TiVo's wonderful fast-forward button.

In terms of polling, I haven't seen as much as I'd like--but this far away from the vote they'd be meaningless anyway. According to Wikipedia, polls on the issue show that voters in Washington are currently in favour of marriage equality: 51% to 44% with 7% undecided and a margin of error of +/- 3%. In other words: too close to call right now, but hopeful.

More as things progress. For now, please remember to tell Washington family and friends in November to vote to Approve R-74. (Yes, it's counter-intuitive, given that it was an anti-SSM group that got it on the ballot in the first place but, trust me, for marriage equality, we vote to Approve. If you're interested in the exact wording, see my previous post on the matter.)
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Monday, July 9, 2012

The Hunger Games, the movie

On my way back from the UK last week I ate lunch and watched a film. The lunch, despite one's palate being really different at seven or eight miles in the air, wasn't entirely bad. Sadly the film, The Hunger Games, was.

Lunch started well enough. The amuse-bouche was luscious slivers of cold, very lightly smoked salmon. I couldn't decide on a starter, so I ordered two: mackerel and asparagus. Both were, to be blunt, vile. I ate them anyway. The main course, the Guinea fowl, was damn good--though the stuff that came with it (some slithery cucumber, ugh) wasn't. I didn't fancy any of the desserts (too much wheat and cream) so ended up scoffing a handful of specially-made-for-British Airways chocolates (which were most fine; I wish I could remember the brand). The wine was a nifty Champagne, Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, followed by a Chassagne-Montrachet, not as good as the stunning Meursault I had on the plane on my February trip, but still pretty tasty. The green tea with jasmine pearls afterwards was more than acceptable.

But, oh dear me, the film: thin and utterly unconvincing. The acting was poor, which was a horrible surprise--I've seen most of these actors do great work. They didn't make me feel anything. And with this premise, I should. These are children killing children. It should have been shocking, awful. But it felt like...nothing. Not vicious. Not morally repugnant. Not tense. Not involving. Not full of the dopamine rush of reversals. Just empty. What's the point of a great premise but if neither book nor film are willing to really Go There. Take, for example, the scene in which Katniss saws through a branch to dump a humming nest of deadly tracker-jackers (super-toxic wasps) on her rivals. You would think (at least I did) that Katniss would have understood the consequences of her actions and wrestled with it. But she didn't hesitate; as she sawed away she seemed utterly unbothered by what might happen next. It's hard to say whether this is the fault of the writing, the acting, or the directing, but Katniss in that moment comes across as either unfeeling or stupid. Not the best way to induce sympathy. Also, I remember when reading the book how annoyed I was that Collins didn't really examine what it meant/how it felt when Katniss killed a rival with an arrow. The film (probably the book, too, but I read it once, very quickly, long ago and wouldn't swear to it) elides Katniss's grief over Rue (which was possibly the least convincing moment of the film) with Katniss's killing of, well, whoever it was she killed. (Yep, it was that moving.)

The editing felt off kilter, too. Though perhaps the trouble lay with the original footage. I don't know enough about these things to tell. Wherever the fault lies, the action sequences were definitely wrong. It went wrong right at the beginning--Katniss's bow hunt in the woods--and never recovered.

Even the sets were unbelievable. Both District 12 and the Capitol felt like Disney theme parks.

As for the ending, it doesn't work. Halfway through the film I found myself trying to remember how the book went, and couldn't--because I hadn't believed it when I read it. The rule changes are too convenient. They let Katniss off the hook of every moral dilemma. She never has to make hard decisions. She never has to choose. I end up not caring, not believing. I end up not making the story mine; I forget what happens because it doesn't matter to me.

There isn't one moment of this film that I liked. An emphatic Thumbs Down.

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Our evening with GRRM and Connie Willis

Last night I was one of about ninety people who gathered for drinks and delicious food--lamb kebab, grilled salmon, a variety of tasty salads and pastries, and luscious fruit (the strawberries were particularly fine)--and conversation with George R.R. Martin.

I was/am extremely jet-lagged* and so not as much in the room as I would have liked. But while Kelley had to do Chair-of-Clarion-West things (being affable, enthusiastic, and magisterial by turns) I had no official role, so it was okay for me to let my mind shrink to dot and zone out occasionally.

Connie Willis has known GRRM for decades, and got him talking about all kinds of things: his Song of Ice and Fire series (the books and HBO's show), his stint in Hollywood (he wrote thirteen episodes of Beauty and the Beast), his thoughts on for-boys romance (no happy endings), and how he has over-committed to personal appearances involving travel--which is why he's not writing as fast as almost everyone wants him to.

The good news, for Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fans, is that he's learning to saying No to such requests. The bad news is that, like many writers, he fills his calendar up to three years in advance, so it will take a while to work through his commitments. So for now readers will have to content themselves with The Lands of Ice and Fire, a book of maps (Bantam, Oct 2012). There will also, at some point, be a concordance, a lush coffee-table book. One or both (sorry, told you I was tired) will include all kinds of new information on the history and backstory of countries and characters. Apparently there will actually be two competing map books but sadly I was fuzzing out at this point and can't remember who is responsible for the second. (Perhaps this man?)

Despite my woolly head I had a good time chatting to friends old and new. Apologies to all those I didn't get to, and, ah, to some of those I did: non-sequiturs are a by-product of this kind of fatigue. Food helps. I lost track of how many meals I ate yesterday. Five maybe? Most of them small, but not all...

Anyway, thanks to all those who just blinked when I blurted odd things, and brought me beer and wine and tasty nibbles. I hope to return the favour soon. And thank you to the excellent board, staff, and volunteers of Clarion West who conjured up a very smooth, expertly run, and deliciously catered event.

*For those who have never been through an 8-hour time change--or, rather, two of them in eight days--it is thoroughly disorientating and utterly exhausting. I tend to adjust at a rate of one hour a day, so won't really be back on track until the end of next week. I have no doubt that other people are better at it than me, but I've done this many, many times now and this is just how I work. The only way through it is, well, through it.
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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Alzheimer's disease linked to cholesterol metabolism

Just published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences*, "The link between altered cholesterol metabolism and Alzheimer's disease," by Paola Gamba, Gabriella Testa, Barbara Sottero, Simona Gargiulo, Giuseppe Poli, and Gabriella Leonarduzzi:
Alzheimer’s disease (AD), the most common form of dementia, is characterized by the progressive loss of neurons and synapses, and by extracellular deposits of amyloid-β (Aβ) as senile plaques, Aβ deposits in the cerebral blood vessels, and intracellular inclusions of hyperphosphorylated tau in the form of neurofibrillary tangles. Several mechanisms contribute to AD development and progression, and increasing epidemiological and molecular evidence suggests a key role of cholesterol in its initiation and progression. Altered cholesterol metabolism and hypercholesterolemia appear to play fundamental roles in amyloid plaque formation and tau hyperphosphorylation. Over the last decade, growing evidence supports the idea that cholesterol oxidation products, known as oxysterols, may be the missing link between altered brain cholesterol metabolism and AD pathogenesis, as their involvement in neurotoxicity, mainly by interacting with Aβ peptides, is reported. [Emphasis mine.]
Given the new hypothesis, proposed last year by Dr Angelique Corthals, that multiple sclerosis is caused by faulty lipid metabolism--it is not, as was believed, an autoimmune disorder--this is not wholly surprising to me. It's my guess that a decade or so from now lipid metabolism will prove to be at the heart of many chronic illnesses. So watch your fat and carbohydrate intake, people: consume lots of omega-3 and -9 oils (fish, flax, olive oil) and reduce your empty starches (all grains, potatoes, and vile things such as high-fructose corn syrup). If your insulin cycle is okay it probably** can't hurt you and might help. Plus, it tastes good.

* DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06513.x, Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1259 (2012) 54-64
** Emphasis on probably: I'm not qualified to give medical advice. Talk to your physician.
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Friday, July 6, 2012

Supreme justice

Fish is brain food. At least that's my sincere hope. Jet lag shrinks my brain to a dot. Fish and fruit are my remedy. So here's this morning's breakfast--a huge, huge piece of trout (Wall Street Journal for scale). Off-screen is the grapefruit awaiting dismemberment.

I read the entire newspaper today, cover to cover, all sections. I'm trying to reorient myself to this side of the Atlantic. Except, of course, lots of the news was about the side of the Atlantic I've just left: Wimbledon, Barclay's and the LIBOR-manipulation scandal, Assange trying to take refuge in the UK Ecuadorian embassy to avoid deportation, and so on.

One thing I had hoped to read about, but of course is old news already, is the Supreme Court's decision regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), that is, the health-care law.

I am thrilled about this. Not just with the 5-4 result--which I'd hoped for*--but with Chief Justice Roberts' decision.

The story I tell myself about the ACA decision--because I'm not a legal expert, not even that competent, really, when it comes to discussing the US political system, but I am a storyteller--is that Chief Justice John G. Roberts could no longer bear to watch the people's trust in one of the most important branches of the US government fail. That, as Chief Justice, he felt obliged to do something. For the people's trust was failing--in no small part because of the decision in January 2010 that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. That decision, which ushered in the era of super-PACs and overruled two precendents, was widely regarded as sharply doctrinaire--the opposite of the Court's supposed impartiality.

The Supreme Court has no money and no armies. The only reason it has any kind of power at all is that we all believe it does. The minute we stop believing in its essential impartiality is the minute the system breaks. Roberts is smart enough and responsible enough to know this. He stepped in with a clever decision to uphold the perception of the Court as being above the political fray.
"Those decisions are entrusted to our nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them," Roberts said. "It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices." (from The Washington Post)
I admire him for this.

And now I'm very, very curious about what decision the court will make regarding the constitutionality of DOMA. I had hoped for a 5-4 decision in favour of throwing DOMA on the scrap heap. Now I've got my fingers crossed for 6-3, which would be a magnificent result.

Stay tuned.

* Though I'd imagined it would be Kennedy who'd be the swing voter--which in retrospect makes me feel like an idiot. Oh, well. Told you I'm not exactly an expert on this stuff.
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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Back in the US

So last week was mad--we got a last-minute flight to the UK to see my family. It was a special occasion, a big family party with four generations, from my aunts to my great nephew (or grand nephew as he would probably be called in the US) who is, shockingly, old enough now to drink legally (in the UK, anyway).

And when I say last-minute, I mean it. We found the ticket on Friday and on Monday afternoon we were sitting in the BA lounge looking at our plane:

The next day we were here (a pub that academic medievalists--at least those who travel to conferences--will no doubt recognise):

The weather was very unsummery: rain, humidity, fifties and sixties. But so much better than the biting February cold of my last visit.

I spent an inordinate amount of time wandering about various English parks with my father. Here's one of his favourites, the Canal Garden at Roundhay Park:

Note the ominous clouds. But it didn't worry us. We just tootled off to that building at the end which, handily, is a old pub called The Roundhay Fox (but which used to be called The Stables--and that's a broad clue for those still trying to guess about the second photo).

So, anyway, today I'm back, jet-lagged out of my mind, but still planning to attend the George R.R. Martin event (a fundraiser for Clarion West) on Saturday. And the weather for the next few days looks glorious:

Life is good.
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