Tuesday, October 30, 2012

My new toy: a longseax


My new toy is a replica of the seax of Beagnoth, thought to be of ninth-century Anglo-Saxon origin. Though in my opinion (neither particularly expert nor particularly humble) it could very well be tenth-century.

It's huge, nearly as long as an early gladius, about 29"--including the hilt, which is around 7". In a pinch I could use it two-handed but for a thick-thewed thegn it would be a one-hander. It's heavy--heavier than a gladius because it doesn't have that nipped-in waist about a third of the way down. I'd say it weighs a smidge under 2 lbs. The blade is single-edged--the longer side is the sharp one. Runes run the length of the blade. In the original, they were inlaid with gold wire.

To convey the size, here it is on a chair:
not called a longseax for nothing
The runes are a bit of a puzzle. By the late ninth century runes weren't really used much anymore: the Latin alphabet was more the thing (both for Latin and Old English--though Old English has those interesting little additions, e.g. eththorn and wynn). If I had to guess, I'd say this was a ceremonial piece (a parade seax) presented to a man who--for some reason or other--was hugely proud of his ethnic heritage. Or it could have been a weird magic thing: runes would have added a lovely hint of mystic woo. The runes don't spell anything--it's just the futhorc, the runic alphabet, followed by the name Beagnoth (and a couple of symbols that haven't been interpreted). I think the runes were shaped by a smith who wasn't used to them; he got things a bit wrong here and there.

Now for a bit of a wander into subjects I've read about but on which I certainly can't claim to be expert--about which I nonetheless have strong opinions. (Those opinions, though, are weakly held, so if you actually know about this stuff I'd love to hear your thoughts.)

First, pronunciation of seax. S, like the s in almost anything, e.g. saxophone. The ae, though, is a dipthong, pronounced something like the a in hat followed by the a in Cuba, with emphasis at the beginning. X, well, I'm guessing it wouldn't be far off the way we say it today: cks, as in, well, saxophone. So seax would end up sounding something like sah-ucks. Or, when in a hurry, sax as in... Oh, never mind.

Second, etymology (or maybe philology, or onomastics, not sure exactly which pot to put this in). Every now and again I hear the suggestion that Saxons were named for their seaxes, just as--supposedly--Franks were identified with their franciscae (throwing axes) and the Welsh got their name because the Angles called them wealh: foreigners. On this particular topic, I don't have a definite opinion. But because I like to make things up, I'll say it could be possible that some of the explanations stuck because of their use by old-school pedants of the time (I'm thinking of people like Isidore of Seville, or Bede) as nifty mnemonics for their students and readers. If you can remember that a certain set of people are called Franks, you're more likely to remember that the axes they're flinging at you are franciscae...

Third... Well, right this minute I can't even think of the term for the study of use-of-weapons-of-long-ago, so bear that in mind when temped to lean on the, ah, scholarship of this paragraph*. But, eh, here goes. In the sixth century, seaxes were ubiquitous, 'even women' were said to have worn them. They were not dedicated weapons of war but utility tools. They were used for everything: hack off a tree branch, butcher a deer, stab at your enemy if you'd stuck your spear in someone else and couldn't get it out in time. They came in all different sizes and shapes and levels of ornamentation, depending on the owner, their culture, and their particular requirements. Longseaxes were a later development. Technically, this longseax of Beagnoth's is known as a broken-backed seax.

Okay, back to firmer ground, that is, pure opinion. If I were making this replica according to the principles I've used in imagining Hild's world, I would have done three things differently.
  • The hilt would have a pommel--this was a high-status item, and the Angles and Saxons of the time would not have been able to resist the opportunity for display. The Anglo-Saxons loved their bling, the gaudier the better. They particularly liked garnets and were very skilled at bringing out their flash and sparkle by foiling the settings. (Gold foil behind a stone really enhances the shimmer of the stone.) When it comes to wealth and hierarchy, subtlety was not a cultural value.
  • The sheath (or perhaps scabbard might be a better term for something this size) would most probably have been highly ornamented. If it were leather, it would be tooled and dyed a brilliant colour. It would have metal chape and throat. But I think it's equally likely that with a blade of this size and status the scabbard would have been more like those for swords: wood, covered in (decorated) leather and lined with fleece.
  • The scabbard fittings would have been more like those for a sword: this blade is so long that that no one, excepting exceedingly stout giants, could wear it as a normal seax: suspended horizontally from and parallel to a belt. With something this size I would certainly want a baldric. But if I were a stout giant who could only afford plain brown leather, I'd at least put the loops on the other side of the sheath so the blade hung edge-up and so didn't cut it's way out in a week.
By now I'm sure it will surprise no one to learn that Hild had a seax. But Hild's blade was nothing like Beagnoth's. I've imagined something half the size (though, even so, it was definitely too long for manners):
Hild leaned back from her half-eaten bread trencher and fingered her black-handled seax. It was a big blade, far bigger than any ten year-old should wear by rights, a slaughter seax.
[...]
The seax was handsome, with a black horn hilt, and a blade inlaid with patterns in a silver and copper mix, and hung edge-up in its supple black sheath suspended by two loops parallel to her belt, silver chape to her left. It had a battle edge with a very hard, sharp point. It could open a man's throat, cut twice-baked road bread, or joint a roast.
I think of it as a gorgeous but deadly cross between a knife and machete. As Hild gets richer and more influential she may have gussied it up a bit: exchanged the sheath for one of embossed and tooled red or royal blue leather, swapped the silver chape and throat for figured, inlaid gold, put a whacking great jewel in the pommel (she is more fond of blue than red), etc. She's an Angle; tasteful understatement was not her thing. There again, Hild being Hild, she might have enjoyed wearing a stark black killing tool to enhance her reputation. It depends what would have served her purpose most readily. And her purpose changes as she changes.

In the middle of writing this post I realised that I hadn't quite visualised the seax, so I got out my trusty Sharpie:

I dithered about the pommel; it's possible the handle could be plainer. On the sheath, the buckles would be at the top but it was easier to draw the buckles hanging down, and I forgot to flip that part of the image, so...

If we say that Beagnoth's seax is mid-ninth century, that is, circa 850 CE (though as I've said I think it's later), and if we say that Hild's is right around 600 CE (though as I've imagined it was a trophy from a skirmish fought a generation or two before she acquired it, it's probably closer to 580 CE) then that's at 250 years difference, minimum. Consider the change in knife design and production between knives of today and those of, say, 1750 and you begin to get an idea of how vast the cultural and manufacturing gap might have been.

I like them both. I think I might be developing seax acquisition syndrome...

* Anything I got right can be credited to Anglo-Saxons Weapons and Warfare by Richard Underwood (Tempus, 2001). Anything I got wrong is mine, all mine. Hey, I'm a novelist. I make shit up.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Diptic: a nifty new photo app

I've discovered a nifty new app, Diptic, that let's you snap pix and then build a composite: a mini document of the day. Deliciously easy. So here's one from the day before yesterday.
More on that top pic early next week. It's my new toy. Speaking of toys, here's a composite of my day yesterday:
Top, of course, is Jeepster. Below that, a new ukulele strung with a low-G instead of high. It makes picking pretty different. And next to them is their big sister, a Yamaha acoustic guitar that I haven't touched for about fifteen years. Three makes family...

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Make my year: vote to approve Referendum 74

Ballots are hitting mailboxes this week in Washington State. We have ours. (And when I say 'we' I'm speaking loosely: Kelley got hers, but I'm not a citizen so I can't vote.)

The local measure that concerns this household the most is, of course, a state referendum, Referendum Measure No. 74 which, if it passes, will make same-sex marriage legal here. Handily, it's in pride of place on the ballot: bang, right next to the little pictures showing you how to fill things in.

So we did. That is, Kelley did while I watched proudly:

I would like all voters in Washington State to vote to approve R-74. If the measure is approved, and I'm cautiously optimistic (very cautiously: it would be the very first time that marriage equality has been approved at the ballot box in this country), then Kelley and I could get legally married. It's possible that we'd wait until marriage equality applied on a federal level before we actually had the ceremony--but maybe we wouldn't wait. We'll wait and see.

Meanwhile, it's fascinating watching the last-ditch efforts of the opposition. Their TV ads say, basically: not approving of homosexuals getting married doesn't mean you don't like those poor, pitiful queer people. And their voter pamphlet blurb says: If R-74 is approved and gays can get married then "women can be 'husbands' and men can be 'wives'." This is not only arrant nonsense but outright fear-mongering--because, yes, there are some people for whom the notion of 'upsetting the natural order of things' is both bewildering and frightening.

There are a few other, minor voting issues that concern us--y'know, who's going to be President, and Governor, and whether or not the police should just leave stoners the fuck alone and spend their time going after wife-beaters and murderers--but this is the one I want everyone to pay attention to.

If you or your loved ones are eligible to vote in Washington State I urge you to vote today to approve R-74. We'd be making history. Plus, it would make my day, or possibly year, or perhaps life.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

The neurochemistry of story, the dramatic arc, and empathy

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak (author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity) has done some work in his lab tracking the measurable effects of story (changing blood chemistry, i.e. levels of oxytocin and cortisol, and areas of brain engagement, using fMRI scans)--the attention, distress, and empathy triggered by same--and mapping them to the classic dramatic arc, first proposed by Gustav Freytag about 150 years ago, of Exposition > Rising Action > Climax > Falling Action > Denouement.

I doubt it will surprise any reader (or viewer) to learn that a good story influences our brain chemistry which in turn influences our behaviour. I've talked about this before: stories work by triggering mirror neurons so that we recreate the experience of others inside ourselves. In other words, story lets us walk in others' shoes without leaving the house and without having to take anyone's shoes away from them.

Empathy is what makes us social animals. Many people believe that its these social propensities that make us human.

What is certain is that story changes us. Story helps make us who we are. Creating story--and sharing the stories others have created--is the most important job of our lives. In a very real sense, story is what makes us who we are.

Watch the video--for experimental purposes I would have tweaked the story of the little boy, sharpened and clarified the arc--but it's instructive:


(via brain pickings, thanks to Karina Sandweg)

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Presidential debate, TV, and drinking games

You know the kind of afternoon when the rewriting that's gliding along suddenly isn't? Yeah, like that. And then you remember there's a presidential debate and you haven't made dinner and there's only a few beers in the fridge, but, hey, there's wine, and vodka in the freezer, and a whole lot of mysterious dusty bottles in lower cupboards so you think, Ah, fuck it, and turn on the TV...

...and, oh god, you can spot a bullet-proof tie when you see one, spread out so wide on the presidential chest, and you're thinking that man must be dying under those burning lights, and his opponent doesn't have to wear armour--he has time to kick back in the evening and drink Mormon-type drinks after a hard day's debate prep, while the exhausted and armoured guy has been, y'know, dealing with dead Ambassadors to Libya and Israel posturing at Iran and Turkey shooting at Syria, and well, shit, this isn't going to go well.

But then you think, Hey, drinking game! (Because that's such a good idea with no food ballast after a hard day's work...) And every time Mr. Willfull Untruths says Crush, we clink, we drink, and every time he says China we clink, we drink, and at some point a neighbour drops by, and when she's gone we find the beer and wine has become vodka shots and after a blur I find I'm eating dinner after all and now we're in the middle of watching some terrible movie with Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones and everyone is shooting at everyone else in the middle of a dixieland jazz funeral and Judd is buried alive in a coffin with a dead grey person who looks about the same colour as all presidents when they've been on the job more than two years.

And, Damn, I say to Kelley, who would want that fucking job? Not me, she says, and we agree we really should not watch so much TV, it's bad for us.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

Birthday experiments

Well, first of all nature ran an experiment of her own: producing, for the very first time in my 17 years in Seattle, an absolutely perfect day for my birthday. Seriously, it could not have been more perfect. Cool, bright, clear in the morning, brilliant just-right sunshine in the afternoon: about 70 degrees. And the neighbourhood was quiet, with the occasional stir of wind in the tops of the trees (which are already beginning to sound papery; autumn is coming) and flick of bird wings. Wasps buzzed. Spiders hung on their webs, assessing best placement for the next couple of weeks.


I spent a lot of the day talking--with friends and family in the morning, and Kelley in the evening--eating (more anon) and drinking (ditto).

In between I worked on Hild, with a little help from a food experiment:

The white base is meringue--the tiny dots you put on the baking sheet to test whether the main meringues are cooked. This time, instead of just munching them up, nodding, and getting the main event out of the oven, I decided to play. I added a dab of macadia butter to each and sprinkled them with grated coconut. It turns out they make truly delicious treats. They certainly powered a lot of Hilding.

Another variation, this time with added chocolate:


This time instead of shredded fresh coconut it's dried shaved coconut--which isn't as sweet, and offsets the sweeter meringue nicely. Plus they look more elegant. Anyway, I took the whole plateful outside during my afternoon break from Hild to eat with tea, reading, and ukulele time:


Then more Hilding. Then time for serious food experiments, this time involving Indian food.

I love India food, but I haven't had it for about a year because all the things it comes with, that are part of the necessary experience--wheat, rice--are bad for me. So this time we decided to forgo the samosas (sigh), substitute mulligatawny soup (delicious), and instead of roti make a kind of buckwheat pancake thing that ended up looking (according to a Twitter friend, @kathygori) like Ethiopian Injera:


And in fact their texture was very similar to the Ethiopian bread I've used to scoop up meat. And it's nothing but good for you: buckwheat isn't a grass at all but a dried and ground flower seed closely related to rhubarb. And it was very, very good at scooping up lamb drenched in spices and accompanied by (hey, it was my birthday, after all) a very little bit of white rice.

Of course, the fact that the meal was accompanied with entirely too much Champagne and beer (forgot to take a picture til we were clearing up):

 probably helped. For dessert we'd planned the aforementioned Big Girl Meringues, with fresh nectarines and whipped cream but, well, we never got around to that part.

Tomorrow is another day. Oh, wait, that's today :) Well, you know what I'll be doing for the rest of the week: eating, drinking, and enjoying this unprecedented sun-in-October weather:

Life is bloody good.

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