31 July, 2011

Maligned Minerals and Serpentinite in Sun

Sunlight in Seattle has been hard to come by, and my poor beautiful chunk of serpentinite has been languishing in the house, unable to show off its colors. But the clouds cleared this afternoon, so I schlepped her out to the porch poste haste. Just look at her:

Hard to believe California tried to dethrone her as the state rock, isn't it? In a way, I'm glad. When a clueless legislator slipped in language that would've nixed the category of state rock entirely, all because some people had no bloody clue where asbestos actually comes from, what it really is, or the fact that for it to do you any damage in its natural state, you'd have to crush and inhale it for years, the geologists went on the warpath. As a happy result, we got tons of excellent posts defending serpentinite, collected with an intense introduction by Silver Fox.

How could you not defend something this beautiful?

And special. You see, serpentinite isn't just another pretty rock: it's got a hell of a lot to say about plate tectonics. Read this gorgeous ode to the stone by Chris Rowan and this fact sheet by Brian Romans for its geologic and human history.

Do you see how her appearance changes as I turn her? Some rocks seem the same from every angle, but not this one. She reveals a different texture, a new bit of fascination, with every angle. No wonder Andrew Alden adores serpentinite.

I find myself adoring everything about her: her colors, her history, even her name. Serpentine. The name for her family of minerals comes from Latin: serpentinus, serpent rock. The smooth, sleek greens that sometimes form scale-like patterns do look like a serpent's skin. And I've got a soft spot for serpents, after having done research on serpent mythology for a story I wrote. Those who limit themselves to Christian mythology are really missing out: serpent stories are cool. Serpents in many cultures were wise and wonderful, guardians of knowledge, and those are suitable myths for a rock that reveals so much about how our oceans open and our mountains rise.

For paens to her, you can read Garry Hayes's series of posts celebrating and defending her. You'll find that she's more than just a stone with stories: some very unique life depends on her.

Get close to her.

Look in to her blues and greens, her faint traces of red. Look at her patterns. These next two photos will link you to Flickr, where you can enlarge her, explore her, and even download her if you wish.

And then, for a truly wild trip through texture, read Callan Bentley's post on serpentinite and mélange. If you don't start drooling, I'll know you have no concept of beauty.

If California attempts to malign her again, I swear I'm filching her for the Washington state rock. We haven't got one. How sad is that? All this glorious geology, and we haven't got a state rock. Something in my soul is deeply offended. Luckily, I have this glorious chunk of serpentinite to cling to for some comfort.

And for those who want a little world serpent with their serpentinite, I've included an excerpt from that story below the fold.

30 July, 2011

An Open Letter to Those Who Think Real Names Solve the Civility Problem

Dear People Who Think Real Names Make People Behave Better:

I understand the desire for a more civil discourse. Most of us would like that (except for the trolls, one supposes), but a "real name" policy isn't the magic cure that will make everyone nice. Allow me to direct your attention to what people feel perfectly comfortable doing under their real names:

Ah, yes. Very civil. A shining example of the kind of respectful discourse one can expect when everybody knows everybody's real name, isn't it?

We've seen your arguments as to why real names are necessary, and Facebook has disproved very nearly all of them. Those Facebook hasn't managed to provide demonstrations against are taken care of at the previous link. And I'm sorry, but your civility argument was so full of holes it could be used to drain spaghetti to begin with, and since then several people have hit it repeatedly with birdshot. I think there are some scraps left there somewhere, but they can't be scraped together into anything usable now. Real names do nothing to rescue teh intertoobz from civility problems. People are too adept at being rat bastards for anything like a real name policy to stop them.

Ah, you say, but there will be consequences! Because, y'know, bosses and stuff will know who's saying what, and they'll get caught, and everything will be happiness and rainbows.

That may be true in a subset of cases. A few people may have to pay a real price for bad behavior. Lovely. Meanwhile, the bad behavior continues apace, because the chance of suffering consequences is so damned remote. And folks like, oh, lessee, Bob "Shoot to Kill" O'Connell and Joe "12 Gauge" Martinez are free to continue spewing their hate and death threats on real name forums like Facebook and Google+ while people like Bug Girl and GrrlScientist are shut out.

You don't solve the civility problem with real names. Real names won't stop a soul from frothing at the mouth. Even if everybody signing up for Google+ had to provide a photo I.D., therefore guaranteeing they have to use their really-real names, the civility problem would continue apace. Look at Congress.

I hate to tell you this, but the civility problem will never be solved. There will always be a subset of rotten jerks in any given population. The band-aid of a real names policy does nothing but give you the illusion things will be hunky-dory.

You mitigate it by having tools in place for folks to flag bad behavior. You mitigate it by having policies in place that deal with that bad behavior no matter what name it's coming from. That's what Google can do: provide some community guidelines (while keeping in mind that free speech shouldn't always be nicey-nice speech), and provide tools for people to report bad behavior.

You yourself are going to have to take some responsibility beyond "real names!" to solve the civility problem. You'll have to flag people who are being wildly inappropriate (and not just because you don't agree with them, or don't like their way of putting things, but truly bad, outrageous, nasty behavior). You'll have to block those folks who make you feel icky inside, whose actions haven't reached the level of a flag but are still not something you'll allow in your online parlor. Speak out against behavior you find reprehensible. And step in and ask folks to behave better when comment threads on your stream get heated.

Whose fault is it if a place is full of assholes? That's right. Uncomfortable but true.

So please, stop bleating about how real names are required to make the web a better place, and go about doing things that will actually make it a better place. Plenty of 'nyms will be happy to join you in those efforts.

Dana Hunter

Cantina Collage o' the Week: Rhodies

I never much liked rhododendrons much, growing up.  All the ones I'd seen were just plants with big boring green leaves.  I didn't know what all the fuss was about.

Then I moved up here, and the place seemed covered in plants with big boring green leaves.  But in mid-spring, the things exploded with blooms.  I'd never seen anything quite like them.  All of the northwest bursts with blossoms in huge, colorful clusters.  Some of the rhodies are the size of shrubs, and some of them are trees.  Trees, covered in ginormous flowers. 

The street that leads up to my complex becomes a corridor of color every spring, between the rhodies, the bulbs, and the fruit trees.  It's one of the reasons I haven't moved.  I love that street.

These are some of the rhodies that rioted there this spring:

And a bee for scale:

I'm okay with the big boring green leaves now.  I know what they'll get up to for several weeks next spring.  In fact, I fully intend to hie me down to the Rhododendron Species Garden again so that my Sony Cyber-Shot can do it justice.  Did I mention ginormous trees with huge flowers on?

29 July, 2011

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Bard?

It may seem bizarre that in the land infamous for a dry sense of humor, satire is banned. But politicians in both Great Britain and Ireland, it appears, are terrified of people like Jon Stewart. So terrified, in fact, that they've come up with inane rules meant to prevent the carpets in their halls of power from being trampled upon by the muddy boots of comedians.

In Britain, you've got Rule Four:
Guidelines on the use of the pictures are less prescriptive. They do specify that no extracts from Parliamentary proceedings may be used in comedy shows or other light entertainment such as political satire. But broadcasters are allowed to include Parliamentary items in magazine programmes containing musical or humourous features, provided the reports are kept separate.
And in Ireland, ye olde fine print in the Rules of Coverage:
Please note that use of Webcasts and broadcasts of the Houses and Parliamentary Committees must be in accordance with the Standing Orders of both Houses and the Rules of Coverage of the Joint Committee on Broadcasting and Parliamentary Information, in particular: "... that recordings or extracts of the proceedings shall not be used in programmes of light entertainment, political satire, party political broadcasts or in any form of advertising or publicity, other than in the form of news and current affairs programme trailers...".
And these are the rules that kept the Daily Show off the air, for fear that a wee bit o' satire could bring the whole House down. You can read the whole sad saga via Graham Linehan. And then you can watch the dread content right here.

Why yes, yes, I am laughing my arse off. Whyever do you ask?

Thing is, it makes a certain sort of sense, based on history. The whole thing reminded me of a bit I'd read on Irish bards many years ago. It set me galloping through my books looking for the relevant bit, and I found it in The Celts by Gerhard Herm:
When they [the filids and the bairds] rose to tell the old stories, to report on heroes still living, the warriors would hang on to their every word, like actors waiting to learn whether they had performed well or not. Adverse or favourable criticism from such a source could alone set the seal on, or ruin, a reputation; woe betide the prince who failed to reward a singer properly. One who did prove to be tight-fisted had a poisonous quatrain directed at him: "I know him/He'll give no horse for a poem;/He'll give you what his kind allows,/Cows." This kind of thing struck home, and noblemen tried to be generous, to reward good singers, with at least a horse.
I should say so.

So it appears that instead of buying the bards off, these days politicians are attempting to outlaw their more dangerous practices. Knowing that those whom the bards would destroy, they first make ridiculous, they're trying to legislate dignity. The problem with this is, America has freedom of the press, and the world has the internet. This means that the bard's tale can cross oceans at the speed of light. And when these pathetic little rules cause Great Britain's weekly dose of satire to go missing, curiosity gets piqued, and then you end up with articles in the New Statesman. Nothing a comedian could do to politicians is quite as bad as what they do to themselves.

We are quite amused.

[And yes, I know, this week's been rather light on the geology. I assure you, that unhappy state of affairs shall not obtain for long. For one thing, I've been doing research to ensure that my next post on the Skykomish is not merely a gallery of rocks with captions saying, "Ooo, pretty!" Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that, but I like giving you added value. Additionally, I've been working on the research for a series of posts on various consequences of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet that I believe will meet with your approval (with especial thanks to Evelyn Mervine, who slipped me a copy of a very delicious paper on drumlins). And, last (but only because I've saved the best for), my intrepid companion and I are headed up to Deception Pass this weekend. Three days of wandering about amidst some extremely delicious geology. You will have such pictures, my darlings. So do not despair: the drought will end, and geology shall be thine. Possibly sans cats, but I'll see what I can do about gratuitous felid insertion.]

28 July, 2011

Dragonfly Summer

I've been watching the dragonflies fly all summer. They swoop and swarm over the grass by our forested hillside, and there are times when I see past the little jungle gym and the tottering old teeter-totter into a much more primordial time. So many things would change if we could travel through time, but dragonflies would be there beside any pond or stream, lake or river, for the past three hundred million years. Granted, they'd be a little bigger, a bit different, but recognizably dragonfly. That's quite an extraordinary thing to realize.

Dragonflies have been an especial favorite insect of mine ever since I saw illustrations of them flying around dinosaurs when I was a wee little kiddie. They seem otherworldly, somehow, with their long four wings, their enormous eyes and their stick-thin bodies. They're one of the most enchanting parts of summer.

Usually, I see fairly small ones, zipping about like the fighter jets of the insect world. But there was a sunny summer morning when I stepped out on the porch on my way to work, and saw this magnificent beastie, the size of my hand, hanging about on the rail.

There are times when it seems like Mother Nature has chosen out a particularly impressive example of her handiwork and set it out on display, just so she can stand to one side with a smug smirk while I stand there attempting to breathe. It took me a few seconds to unstick my feet and sneak back into the house for the camera. Work be damned. I'd never get a chance like this again.

I kept fearing it would fly away as I inched closer, but it never so much as twitched. If some crazy human with a camera wanted macros, it seemed to think, fine. Fire away. Any angle you like. Yes, I am magnificent, aren't I? Look at me. I could fly off at the speed of a racehorse, if I liked, but instead I'll hang out here with my dramatically transparent wings gleaming in stray sunbeams and show off the reason why evolution hasn't done more than tinker round my edges. I am perfect.

As I shifted round it for different angles, its transparent wings gleamed, the sun striking iridescent highlights from them. Four wings that don't fold - that's how you tell a dragonfly from its close relative, the damselfly. Those veins give their gossamer wings strength. And there are things you'd never suspect about them, watching them fly about: that they're fierce predators, with a prehensile labium evolved for swift biting. When you have something that can fly at incredible speeds, hover, change direction in an eyeblink, and thrust out part of its mouth to catch you, you're a very unfortunate bug indeed if the dragonfly looks upon you and says, "I believe I shall consume you for my luncheon."

And those eyes. Dragonflies have enormous eyes. I mean, no wonder they haven't got large antennae - who needs them when you've got these peepers:
Each compound eye is composed of nearly 28,000 individual units (ommatidia), and together the eyes cover most of the head. More than 80% of their brain is devoted to analyzing visual information.
I wish I could see the world through those eyes, with that brain. It must be truly extraordinary. Just like great and glorious order Odonata.

This beauty very nearly tempted me to call work and explain I couldn't be there, on account of being unavoidably detained by something primeval.

I'd never seen one this large before. Yes, granted, it's minuscule compared to some of the monsters who flew the Carboniferous wetlands. A handspan compared to over two feet doesn't seem like much. But it's bloody well big enough to impress in our shrunken age, thank you ever so much.

Earlier this year, we saw a colorful little bugger whilst exploring the Skykomish River near Monroe. This one kindly posed on rocks for the enjoyment of the geologists in the audience.

 This appears to be a Plathemis lydia, Common Whitetail. Not that it has got a white tail, but if I'm right, it soon will have - it seems to be an immature male. Although calling it immature seems a little unfair - dragonfly nymphs can live for several years, after all, so this one might not be all that young. The aquatic nymphs are my buddies. They eat mosquito larvae. And the adult Common Whitetail likes to nom on mosquitoes, too, so they're nice to have around.

The wing patterns make your eyes go all wibbly, don't they?

This little gentleman flitted about from rock to rock, playing snap-me-if-you-can, unlike the stately subject on my porch. And there were garter snakes in the same nest of boulders, so I got a bit distracted trying to snap those. I enjoy garter snakes. But the dragonfly is, of course, prettier.

Looks like someone who should be out flying with dinosaurs, doesn't he? Amazing little creature. Creationists seem to be amazed by them, to - search "dragonfly evolution," and you'll see a bunch of creationist sites babbling that dragonflies prove they were created because they haven't evolved. There's an edge of hysteria, there. Well, you'd be a little overwrought if you were clinging to a completely wrong position, with evidence that dragonflies did, in fact, evolve from earlier critters and have continued evolving ever since, even if the basics of their body plans have worked well enough that they don't look vastly different from what they were when they came into their own well over two hundred million years ago. 

I also found out that the state insect of Washington is a dragonfly: the Green Darner. I had no idea we even had state insects. We've got state everything, apparently. I wonder what our official state tube sock is?

That's a pretty outstanding state insect, though. Could've been much worse. Could've been a cockroach. Instead, we get something brilliant and beautiful and altogether delightful. But one gets the impression that this Common Whitetail is plotting to overthrow the Green Darner.

How else do you explain this pose on a rock that compliments the color of its wings?

If you wish to continue immersing yourself in dragonflies, do visit their page on the Tree of Life. And the next time you get a chance, pause a while with one, and let yourself be carried back to a time when we were nothing more than timorous little shrews while these creatures took to the skies with pterodactyls.

27 July, 2011

Oh, Yes. Very Frivolous

A while back, our own Chris Rhetts asked me to unlimber the Smack-o-Matic and deliver an epic beatdown. He pointed me to this:

And I watched the trailer:

And I grew very, very angry. Verily, I wished to unleash the Smack-o-Matic upon the deserving. Because, you see, I'd been taken in by that: by the media and the comedians and all the rest who had made bitter fun of the woman who sued McDonald's for spilling a cup of coffee. None of them ever made any mention of the fact that she'd suffered life-threatening burns in the process. They just laughed: silly wench. She should've known better than to spill coffee on herself. What a trivial thing to sue a corporation for.

When the corporation serves its coffee at 180 degrees F - 85% of the boiling point of water - it's not trivial.

This is how not trivial it is:
Each year, approximately 3,800 injuries and 34 deaths occur in the home due to scalding from excessively hot tap water. The majority of these accidents involve the elderly and children under the age of five. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) urges all users to lower their water heaters to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to preventing accidents, this decrease in temperature will conserve energy and save money.

Most adults will suffer third-degree burns if exposed to 150 degree water for two seconds. Burns will also occur with a six-second exposure to 140 degree water or with a thirty second exposure to 130 degree water. Even if the temperature is 120 degrees, a five minute exposure could result in third-degree burns. [emphasis added]
Go spill some water on yourself. I guarantee you will be exposed for more than two seconds. Now, imagine that cold water is 180 degrees, and you are elderly, and thus already vulnerable to burns. Look at the wet bits of you, and imagine this is what you see (don't go below the fold if you can't handle graphic):

26 July, 2011

Serpentinite and Cat

Sorry, folks.  The week got away from me, and I haven't got a Dojo post ready. Besides, Karen wants pics of that delightful chunk of probable serpentinite.

Alas, I missed my chance Sunday. It was baking hot on the porch, I had Aunty Flow's typical "hi, I'm here!" agony going on, and the weather folks assured me that all would be sweetness and light aside from scattered thunderstorms on Monday. "No problem," thought I. "Scattered t-storms we can live with. Plenty o' sunbreaks, I'm sure!"

What the weather folks apparently meant but didn't state explicitly was, "Thunderstorms scattered through solid gray clouds that will not allow so much as a single stray sunbeam to alight upon your porch. No, not even for a second."


So we're going to have to go on with two pics I shot that include the cat, and that do not in any way do justice to the glory that is my chunk of serpentinite, but can be seen as a teaser.

There she is, lying on top of the bits of the glacial erratic I picked off the ground so that I could take them home and break them open and attempt to identify what it's made of. The rocks from Carkeek are laid out neatly drying. I suppose she believes she's helping. The serpentinite is that chunk o' yum right behind her head.

Here she is lying beside my great and glorious chunk of serpentinite, out on the porch. Could've gotten a much better shot if I'd been in any condition to crouch, but at this time of the month, movement is severely restricted. Still, you can tell it is beautiful.

The light today is so severely filtered by clouds that the truly magnificent greens and blues of this thing aren't properly displayed, but I can't just leave you with mere glimpses. Here's one taken near the window, with what little light we've got:

How amazing is that? Just imagine what actual sunlight does to it!

A macro:

Really, as much as I love my schist, I almost think I love this more. Once the sun comes back at a time when I can take full advantage, we'll have some truly good pics and a proper write-up on what serpentinite's all about. As long as this is serpentinite. If anybody suspects it's not, now would be an excellent time to say so.

And, because I can't resist:

How happy does she look, eh? Shot that with the zoom from inside the house, so as not to wake her up. In the summer, she spends a fair amount of her time out on the porch, basking in the sun. At least she's lazy and doesn't try to climb up on the roof like the neighbor's cat. I can leave the door open and leave her to do whatever without worrying I'll have to call in a ladder truck later. True, we get flies, but it's a small price to pay for such a happy kitteh.

25 July, 2011

Los Links 7/22

Okay, we're a bit late. Look, a lot happened. Work was busy, so I got behind in my reading. Then Google+ went all assclown over 'nyms, a right-wing Christian terrorist bombed Oslo and shot up kids, which distracted me from my linkage duties.  And, just to top it all off, my darling Aunty Flow showed up bright and early Sunday morning, bearing pain.

Rather lost both ability and motivation to write up the links, but here they are at last.  Let's jump straight in.


Neurotic Physiology: Friday Weird Science: They totally knew Lady Gaga was coming.  Sci doesn't think you need to go so far as to use a huge expensive fMRI to determine the next hit song.

Updates from the Paleontology Lab: A paleontologist’s worst nightmare…realized.  An amateur catches a mistake professionals missed, and everybody's happy. Yay, science!

EvoEcoLab: The Reality and Utility of Bear Paternity Tests.  This is the kind of nuance Cons tend to miss when they're busy dissing science.

Pharyngula: A Skeptical Look at Aliens. Looking for ideas to make your aliens more alien? Peruse this post, and also consider this ape's ass... 

We Are All In the Gutter: Lanhaina Noon. Freaky wicked cool!

Uncovered Earth: Sunday Science Photos, July 10 – 16. In which a terrible confession is made.

Terra Sigillata: iAroma synthetic marijuana and the loss of Max Dobner. This is tragic, and stands as a reminder: be careful about mind-altering substances, legal or not.

Degrees of Freedom: When Math(s) Turns Out To Be Useful. Yes, even the weird, abstract shit that seems like it'll never, ever have an application in the real world can come in very useful indeed.

Georneys: Geology Word of the Week: H is for Halokinesis. Evelyn brings on the science and beats down the pseudoscience. Fun! Also, Red Rock Canyon in Pictures. Man, this took me back home. I could smell it. Lovely!

Hindered Setting: Salt and sediment: A brief history of ideas. Good reading after Evelyn's whetted your appetite for salty stuff.

Bad Astronomy: Dawn of a new Vesta. Yes, read this post, despite the horribly punny title.  Also, Dear Playboy: Deepak Chopra is wrong.  I don't even have to pitch this, do I? You're gonna click.

Tuff Guy: A vulcanologist's holiday snaps. These pretty much had me packing my bags for Santorini. Will haul rocks for food!

MSNBC: Stem cell clinics ripping off patients, bullying scientists. Despicable shits they are.

Glacial Till: Meteorite Monday: More thin section fun. These things make me love meteorites all the more!

New York Times: First-Place Sweep by American Girls at First Google Science Fair. This was fantastic to see. And these girls are scary smart.

Science-Based Medicine: Antidepressants and Effect Size.  "Once more, science fails to give us the black-and-white answers we crave. And once again we are reminded that we can’t rely on the media for accurate, nuanced information about medical science." Which is why I'm glad we have people like Harriet Hall making some sense of it all.

The Chalkboard: UF calls for precautions against animal activists. The despicable fucktards are at it again. And anyone who thinks terrorizing scientists using animal models is all right is not all right with me, FYI.

Not Exactly Rocket Science: The power of nouns – tiny word change increases voter turnout. First flags, now nouns - democracy is beginning to worry me. Okay, continuing.

Evolutionblog: Multiverses. No, they're not something scientists made up.

Cosmic Variance: The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely UnderstoodSeriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood.  Read both posts before you scream, "The fuck they are!"

The Primate Diaries: The Science of Sexism: Primate Behavior and the Culture of Sexual Coercion. This may redefine your thinking on sexism, patriarchy, and biology - there's hope!

Science Daily: Diamonds Pinpoint Start of Colliding Continents. That's just wicked cool, that is. It amazes me what we're able to find out from tiny old bits of crystal.

GigaOM: Thousands of scientific papers uploaded to the Pirate Bay. Ha ha ha take THAT, journals!

Discover: The Army's Bold Plan to Turn Soldiers Into Telepaths. Sounds crazy, but it's serious science.

The White Coat Underground: Asthma, placebo, and how not to kill your patients. I love it when something pisses PalMD off. He writes like a fury and we all learn something that could save our lives.

Life Unbounded: O NASA! My NASA! This may possibly be the only thing you need to read about Atlantis and NASA. Well, for now, anyway.

Boing Boing: Science on Screen coming to 8 theaters across America. And Seattle is one. I love my city!

Eruptions: Guest Post: Unusual volcanism in the central Andes. Fascinating! Want more!

The Science & Entertainment Exchange: Under the Microscope: Fringe. Okay. This is a show that is absolutely dedicated to getting science right, and I think I have to watch it now.

Scientific American: How Probiotics May Save Your Life. You'll be a little surprised at what one of those probiotics is. Consider this an Ode to a Mouse.

Science Sushi: Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture. These are the kinds of conversations we're going to have to have if we expect to feed billions more people.

Gilt Taste: The Most Important Fish in the Sea. We're going to have to get serious about stamping out overfishing. This article demonstrates why.

The Scicurious Brain: Drinking Coffee to Stave Off Alzheimer’s. Show me the money. I picture Sci with a rapier, poking holes in bad science papers and cackling madly.


The Book Designer: 7 Things You Can Do Today to Improve Your Book Design. Simple stuff, but it'll make for a much more readable book. Pay attention, self-pubbers!

The Passive Voice: Are Big Publishers Colluding in Violation of Antitrust Laws? Ooo, controversy. Yum!

Global Comment: In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series. A mind-bending review of a series that never was, but actually is, now that you think about it...

The Observatory: Whose Line Is It, Anyway? In this age of Google, social media, and instant communication, it's probably not the best idea to copy other peoples' work wholesale. Not that it stopped the idiot spanked herein.

The Intern: How Books Work: The Hunger Games (Part 1). Anatomy of a book, pretty colors. 

Women's Issues

MSNBC: Afghan women rally, turning men red-faced with anger.  It's good to see these women, who have been put through so much hell, find their voices and fight for equality.

Ann Daly: Beware the Silent Career-Killer: 'Excessive Subjectivity'. "When a company fails to establish objective criteria for its managers to decide on pay raises and promotions, then personal, subjective, unexamined biases kick in. And if you're operating in a male-dominated environment, you can bet that those cultural biases ain't gonna benefit the women."

Daily Kos: Rick Santorum is against abortion for any reason, with one exception. Can we say "Raving hypocrite," boys and girls?

The Big Picture: World's Most Dangerous Countries for Women. Prepare for depression.

Cocktail Party Physics: Is It Cold in Here? Sexism doesn't have to be conscious or blatant for the climate to get awfully chilly toward women.

Blag Hag: Is free birth control coming soon? I want this for two reasons: one, free birth control which may wrestle my wayward hormones into submission. Two: fundie heads exploding.

Religion and Atheism

The Telegraph: Chief Rabbi: Equality laws leading to new Mayflower exodus. Well, Rabbi, if that's how you feel... don't let the door hit you in the arse on your way out.

David's Slingshot: The Arrogance of Not Arguing. This: "I’m going to point out something that tends to get papered over: accommodationism isn’t just insulting to the Gnu Atheists; It is insulting to believers, on a profound level."

Bay of Fundie: The Alpha Course. Ron Britton is back, baby! And he has a hysterically funny look at a course meant to make us all believe in god.

Maryam Namazie: Sharia Law is a code of despair; a code obsessed with women.  This is important. Go read it.

BBC: King's Torah splits Israel's religious and secular Jews. This, folks, is what happens when people actually believe what's written in the Bible. It's ugly, it makes otherwise decent people believe in the morality of murdering children, and has no place in civilized society.


Paul Krugman: Getting to Crazy. Commentators suddenly begin to realize the Cons are insane. Krugman sez, "Well duh-huh."

OregonLive: Misreading history: GOP, with great faith, leads us toward a depression. We all knew that already, but this is brilliantly written.

Politics USA: Eric Cantor Runs from The American People with Real Time Facebook Censorship. Because we all know the poor widdle Cons are too delicate to hear contrary ideas - their heads might esplode.

Christian Science Monitor: US businesses don’t succeed in spite of government. They succeed because of it. Send this to all of your anti-government acquaintances and relatives, please.

The Root: Using the Death Penalty to Get Re-Elected. Why electing judges is a deadly thing to do.

Roger Ebert's Journal: The Republicans exit history. I wish they'd hurry up and get the hell gone.

Society and Culture

Pharyngula: My position on communicating skepticism.  "Don't forget: the truth is our pole star, science is the vessel we use to progress, and a passion to explore and learn is the engine of our purpose. If we lose sight of that in our concern to be gentle with those who impede us, we'll lose our way."  YES.

In These Times: Let’s Rethink Masculinity. Personally, I think a true superman is one who's brave enough to stay home with the baby.

Scientific American: The educational value of creative disobedience. Gorgeous musings on what real learning is, and what we should do to change our current educational environment.  Bolded so you do not miss it.

Grist: Koch brothers declare war on offshore wind. Well, of course they have. Wonder if they'd stop screeching if we added another windmill every time they did?

Felix Salmon: The real Rupert Murdoch exposed. This will not come as a surprise to those of us who knew he was a disgusting little prick, but it's deeply satisfying.

Center for American Progress: Think Again: Rupert, We Hardly Knew Ye. "The Murdoch empire is based on lies, criminal behavior, a lack of respect for elementary human decency, and a single-minded pursuit of its own self-interest." About sums it up, yes.

The Audit: The Murdoch Pushback: Attacking the Press. Pointing you toward this one for the paragraphs upon paragraphs of wrongdoings. Wow-e-wow.

Furious Purpose: A kind of funny and mostly overlooked detail in the Newscorp meltdown. Heh heh heh. Religion and scumbaggery, all in one neat package.

Transportation for America: Prosecuting the victim, absolving the perpetrators. Turning a tragedy into an outrage, all because cities can't design transit properly.

The Mary Sue: The Ol’ Switcheroo: A Consideration of Gender-Bending in Geek Culture. Heh. Considering all the times I've dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow, I totally relate to this.

Reciprocal Space: Plague-arism. "As academics, it is our duty to have robust procedures for assessment (and to take companies like Custom Essay Services to task). But equally, students must have the integrity and the wit to realise that, in the long run, learning demands commitment, not cash." Hells to the yes!

Emily L. Hauser - In My Head: Why I think Marcus Bachmann might be gay (and why I think it matters). Some extremely good points in here, and well worth your time. It could make us all better people.

Balloon Juice: Why Yes. It’s Still True. Megan McCardle Is Always Wrong. Always.

Equality is Beautiful

New York State is celebrating marriage equality, and it's beautiful.

Niagara Falls by @LanceBass
Governor Cuomo wholeheartedly declared July 24 as a day to commemorate marriage equality, which gives us even more to celebrate aside from the marriages of a lot of very happy couples.  If you really want your heart warmed, click here to see Phyllis Siegal and Connie Kopelov right after they tied the knot.  The Salt Lake Tribune has a huge gallery.  And the Digital Cuttlefish has written a poem especially for the occasion: "My Marriage is Gay Today."  At least one hetero marriage has been changed by all this gay marrying!

By the time I, like Phyllis and Connie, am a white-haired old lady, I hope that every state has allowed same-sex couples to suffer matrimony like the rest of us get married, and that the idea that the United States once was a place where people who loved each other couldn't marry simply because of similar genitalia is as unbelievable to the youngsters as the idea of Jim Crow and bans on interracial marriages.

I think this calls for a song.

(And yes, I'll have Los Links up later today. I'm horribly behind, but they're coming.)

24 July, 2011

In the Face of Terrorism: Norway, the Myth of a Madman, and a Better Way

Image Source Guardian.co.uk
This man is a terrorist.

Blond, blue-eyed, solidly middle-class, raised and educated in a Western democracy, yes.  He's far from the al Qaeda foot soldier everyone expected when news of the Oslo bombing and subsequent shooting on Utoya island broke.  Some are calling him Norway's Timothy McVeigh, and that's apt: both of them were home-grown terrorists who decided to express their dissatisfaction with their societies by building farms out of fertilizer and parking them in front of government buildings in hopes of maximum mayhem.  But Anders Behring Breivik proved a far more ambitious fanatic.  The fact his body count didn't exceed McVeigh's isn't due to anything more than somewhat poor timing and excellent police work.

This is Norway's Oklahoma City in more ways than one.  I remember when we all thought the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building must have been bombed by Arab terrorists, back in the early hours before McVeigh got arrested for traffic violations and the truth that even good ol' American boys could be terrorists fell down upon us.  Norwegians are a bit shocked at themselves for their assumptions, but let's face facts: most of the people we encounter blowing up selves and others these days are, indeed, Muslim.  A few too many people, especially in my country, made the leap from "could be" to "must be" far too quickly, but the initial suspicion wasn't completely unfounded.  When Islamist fanatics tell the West repeatedly and often they're determined to blow our shit up, it's not silly to think of them when a bomb goes off.

But people like Breivik and McVeigh remind us that terrorism is not the exclusive method of Middle Eastern extremists.  And this is something we must accept.  Even blond, blue-eyed native sons can be terrorists.  When someone engages in mass slaughter for political and religious motives, with the intent of terrorizing society into compliance with their views or destabilizing the government they despise, they have committed acts of terrorism, no matter how white and Christian they are.  This is something some people seem to forget, the moment the suspect turns out to have a pale complexion.  People stop using the word "terrorist" and start using words like "madman" and "mass murderer" instead.  The terrorist goes from being a terrorist to some lone weirdo who must be an anomaly.

Breivik is not.  Breivik is a cold, calculating, far-right son of a bitch who hasn't a trace of remorse.  He is a man with a cause who planned his act of terror carefully.  He was as driven by ideology as any other political terrorist, and to call him delusional or insane is an insult to people with genuine mental illnesses.  He's a product of right-wing ideology, not mental disease or defect.

We need to get over this tendency to think that our native sons and daughters are nuts when they adhere to home-grown extremist ideologies.  When their ideologies lead them to commit stunning acts of terror, we need to stop comforting ourselves by thinking they must be aberrations.  They belong in the same category as other people we call terrorists.  Terrorism is not merely a foreign phenomenon.  Terrorism is a method any extremist can use, and native extremists do.  It's just that, with a few spectacular exceptions, our home-grown extremists haven't been quite as good at it.  That, unfortunately, could easily change.  And we won't be prepared to handle them if we insist on seeing our very own terrorists as something qualitatively different from other sorts.

What Breivik has reminded us is that terrorists can and do arise even in the most peaceful, progressive societies.  Wherever there are politically disaffected people with a martyr complex and the belief that violence will serve them where the ballot box has not, you're at risk of having some despicable shits load up on bombs and bullets and attempt to change the political landscape by force. 

What can a society do, in the face of that?

Norway appears headed in the right direction.  So far, their people and their leaders have understood that the answer to terror is to not be terrorized.  They're standing strong on their values and their democracy.  They're not leaping immediately to create a national security or police state.  This has pushed them in the opposite direction from what Breivik seems to have intended, and that's exactly the right response.  You won't get terrorists to stop terrorizing by letting their attacks succeed.  All you'll do is help them destroy your cherished society.  You may not remake it in the image they intended, but by giving in to the terror, by letting fear strangle your freedoms, you've handed them a win.  That's not the way to go, and I'm glad to see Norway understands that.

What can a society do, in the face of terror?  Do what Norway is doing: catch the terrorist(s) who did it.  The fact that they took this terrorist alive, right in the middle of his shooting spree, is outstanding.  That denied him martyrdom, which takes a lot of wind from his sails and gives those desiring a glorious death for the cause something to think about, should they decide to attempt an act of terror themselves.  It also makes it much less likely that there will be further terrorist attacks undertaken as acts of revenge.

You might notice Norway hasn't shipped Breivik off to some military installation to be tortured.  They're using no "enhanced interrogation."  He's being afforded due process.  Under Norwegian law, it appears he'll even have a chance at freedom in 21 years.  Never mind that his chances are about equal to Charlie Manson's.  The point is that the criminal justice system is handling him just fine, without going to extremes, staying within the boundaries set by an extremely civilized society, up to and including affording him proper representation, and yet they are perfectly confident that society has nothing more to fear from this murderous piece of shit.  They're completely right.  Democracies do not have to adopt totalitarian tactics to handle terrorists.  They should not.  Doing what my own country is doing - suspending constitutional rights, eroding civil liberties in the name of "security," destroying its moral authority by engaging in torture - doesn't lead to a safer society, but one in which the terrorists, both home-grown and foreign, have all but won.

We have to accept the fact that we're never going to be perfectly safe.  Even if we completely closed our beautiful open societies, even if we crushed dissenting voices, arrested people for showing the slightest tendency toward ideas that sometimes lead to violence, even if we turned every building into a bunker and strip-searched every citizen several times a day, we'd still be at risk from people who hold extreme beliefs and aren't afraid to risk their lives in order to kill for their cause.  Better, then, to live in freedom.  We can take precautions, harden targets and give law enforcement the tools they need to mitigate our risks and deal with those terrorist acts we couldn't prevent, without destroying our civil liberties and our democracies.  But let's not make the mistake of living in terror.  Let's accept that there are risk inherent in any type of society, and some risks are more acceptable than others.  I'd rather risk getting killed by an extremist than live under a dictatorship in the name of security.  I'd rather risk dissenting voices that might get out of hand than silence all but the most bland.

I'd rather not fight terrorism with bigger guns, escalating the violence and spiraling us off into endless conflict.  I'd rather fight Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's way:

At a press conference in Oslo, Stoltenberg, pictured, said that those guilty for the atrocities would be brought to justice and that the attacks would bring "more openess and more democracy" to the country.
"No one will bomb us to silence. No one will shoot us to silence. No one will ever scare us away from being Norway," Stoltenberg said.

"You will not destroy us. You will not destroy our democracy or our ideals for a better world," he added.

I wish my own country had followed Norway's lead, rather than letting fear all but destroy everything that made her great.

All of us, every single democracy faced with terrorism both native and foreign, can do better.  We must recognize terrorism for what it is, no matter who perpetrates it, and deny those terrorists the satisfaction of remaking our great societies into small and fearful ones.  If we don't, we are lost.

Atlantis: Time to Say Goodbye

Watching her land live was agony and ecstasy.  I wish it wasn't the last, but at least her final approach was pitch-perfect and altogether beautiful.

I took screenshots of that historic final landing.  Figured I'd share.

Pilot's view on the final approach.

Atlantis on infrared.

You can see the glow around her.  She's hot!  Twin sonic booms nearly stopped my heart before they announced what they were.

Pilot's view of the runway.

And again, with a little flare of color.

And here she is, about to touch down.

Almost down.

Touching down.

Love that smoke - from the tires?  I don't know enough about these landings to tell.  But it's beautiful.

Chute deployed.

Steaming hot! Watching that steam come off her in infrared was really fascinating - it looked almost like smoke signals.  As dawn came and they took close shots of the nose of the orbiter, you could see the air wavering from the heat coming off her.

And there she is, crew members out, mission complete.  STS135, the final orbit, an unqualified success.

Yeah, that deserved a high five.

America's future in space is uncertain.  That's the only darkness on this day.  I just hope the next manned ship this country launches is the one that takes us beyond our own horizons.  I want to see a geologist on Mars.

Make it so, America.

And for Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Endeavor, and Enterprise, the song that cycled through my mind as I watched the last of you land for the very last time:

Goodbye, old friends. I'll miss you.

23 July, 2011

A 'Nym is Not an Unknown

I like Google+, I do, but I'm not liking their recent purge of pseudonymous folk at all.  It's not right that people like Bug Girl and DrugMonkey face the choice between revealing their real names or getting banned.  And we're not talking just having their profiles deactivated, no, it's worse than that: they were exiled completely from Google+, not allowed to even follow along in silence, all for the terrible crime of not writing under their "real" name.  Fortunately, it seems they're now allowed to view, but nothing else.

Google+ is going to have to deal with a few facts or shrink dramatically.

A 'nym is not an unknown.  Names are easy to fake.  Reputations are not.  Over the months and years, pseudonymous folk build up a reputation, and that reputation follows the 'nym.  So let's not pretend that a pseudonym is the same as anonymous.  Some people still get confused about that - apparently, Google+ is, too, and it's pathetic at this late stage in the game.  Allowing people to use their pseudonyms will not throw open the gates to barbarians and trolls.  Disallowing 'nyms won't prevent people from being assclowns.  What Google is doing is about as sensible as banning all Muslims from airports because the vast majority of people who hijack planes are Muslim.  You harm a lot of very good people for very little gain.  There are better ways of guarding against undesired behaviors.  Such as, banning the people who actually engage in those behaviors, regardless of whether they use their real names or not.

Google seems to have this idea that people only use a 'nym because they're up to no good.  That's ridiculous.  There are plenty of excellent reasons why someone wouldn't want to go by their real name.  I chose a pseudonym a long time ago (ye gods, nearly twenty years, how time flies), not because I wanted to hide my real self but because my legal name isn't one I want on the cover of my books.  Grow up with a last name associated with a very kitschy retailer, deal with the endless no-longer-funny jokes, and on top of that have a character filch your first name, and before long, you're having nightmares about doing very Not Nice things to fans who unwitting tell you the Not Funny Joke for the billionth-and-eleventy-first time.  In the interests of public relations, I have to be a 'nym.

But there are deeper reasons.  Much, much deeper.

I do not want my identity stolen.  I do not want to be stalked.  I do not want current or future employers deciding my liberal tendencies or my atheism or whatever else makes me suddenly unemployable, despite an exemplary track record.  I do not want my rapist able to locate me simply by searching my name. Those, it seems, are reasons enough not to operate online under my legal name.  Besides, my legal name weirds me out, now.  I hear it and it sounds wrong.  I'm Dana Hunter, online and off (except at the office).  That's me.  Not this stranger on my driver's license.

There are 'nyms out there who have even better reasons.  'Nyms who risk death by being who they are, and would potentially be tracked down and killed if they went by their real names - Muslims who deconvert, for instance, or women escaping abusive former spouses.  There are 'nyms who would be ostracized were certain things about them known: that they're LGBTQ, or atheists.  There are 'nyms who would lose their jobs for saying what they do: whistleblowers, or simply people who have a lot to share but whose companies don't want them to discuss anything even tangentially related to their employment in public.  All of these 'nyms have something of interest to say, something of value to contribute, and the intertoobz would be a far poorer place were they silenced.  Google+ certainly will be a sanitized wasteland if they're all exiled from it.

And how does it possibly make sense to force 'nyms to use their real names, even if they're able?  We don't know who the fuck John B. Smith is.  We don't care.  We know a 'nym, and a 'nym is who we're looking for when we go to add that beloved person to our circles.  And how do you, Google, know that John B. Smith is the name behind the 'nym?  Because it's a "real" name, not something even the most drug-addled hippie parent would have named a child?  How do you know that real-sounding name wasn't just cobbled together from a few random entries in a phone book?  We don't present proof of identity when we sign up.  Google doesn't have Dana Hunter's driver's license or birth certificate on file.  (Should they ever ask, though, I can point them to a rather large number of people in both my online and offline worlds who'd know who Dana Hunter is and could easily pick me out of a crowd.  Even my parents know me by my 'nym.) 

The solution to whatever it is Google's hoping to prevent by banning 'nyms - whether it's sock puppetry or trolling or general asshattery - isn't the nuclear option of banning everybody with an implausible name (including Chinese ones).  Just witness the security procedures that put innocent kiddies on no-fly lists only to let a terrorist named Richard Reid on board, no questions asked despite the bomb in his shoe, to see how effective such tactics are.  Targeted tools that enforce consequences for actual bad behavior make better sense, don't ensnare the innocent quite so often, and ensure actual results.  That's much more useful to a community. 

Google+ is new, and there are bound to be growing pains.  The real test is to see how they respond to their mistakes.  If they're smart, they'll fix their policy and let the poor exiled 'nyms back in with a swift apology.

If not, my profile may not be long for Google+, whether they cotton to the fact I'm a 'nym or not.  I don't think I'd want to be part of an environment that's unremittingly hostile to my Bug Girl and DrugMonkey friends.

You can help them do the right thing by adding your name (or 'nym) here.

Cantina Collage o' the Week: Juanita Bay Flowers

I haven't restocked on quotes yet, so we'll make do with collages.  Horrible torture, I know: I'm making you look at pretty things.

These are some of the many flowers I made friends with when my intrepid companion and I went to Juanita Bay in May, which adventure I meant to write up and completely forgot about.

You'll notice Pacific Bleeding Heart in the bottom right, there.  I'd thought it was something they planted, so I'd forgotten all about it.  Funny how we get so much more excited when we know they're wild.  At least, I do.

The purple ones against a blue sky in the bottom center were on a tree.  A huge tree.  A huge tree absolutely covered in purple flowers:

And from another angle in which you can see the flowers a bit better:

If anybody knows what it is, I'd count it a kindness if you let me know.

I'll write up that adventure here eventually - just wait till you see the turtles!

22 July, 2011

Scenes from the Sound

This summer hasn't been all that summery here in Seattle, so when the sun peeked out briefly on Monday afternoon, my intrepid companion and I scurried down to Carkeek Park in hopes of catching it.  We did.  And, bonus, I only came home with fourteen rocks this time!  One of them is a hefty chunk of what I'm almost certain is serpentinite.  If the sun ever comes out again, I'll show it to you.

I love that rock with an unreasonable passion.

Anyway.  Lots of photos of interesting rockage to show you soon, but I haven't got them ready, so you'll have to settle for pretty pictures instead.  Poor you.  I treat you so badly.

Piper Creek flows out to the Sound here.  For some reason, there weren't many seabirds but a huge number of crows.  I have no idea what this one was doing, but what a pose, eh?  And the rock it's on has an interesting shape.  It puts me in mind of suiseki

21 July, 2011

Beware! The Health Water Pushers Want You Dead!

Well, brain dead, anyway, because how else are they going to transfer money from your wallet to theirs?

Take water.  Just yer basic water.  Now, I've fallen for the SoBe Lifewater scheme, not because of its supposed health benefits but because they add things to it that make it very tasty, and so I can drink something like Strawberry Dragonfruit and pretend I'm not really drinking water whilst still getting hydration.  And did I mention it's so tasty?  There's an adorable lizard, too.  So there we have added value I can taste and see.  But for other water needs, tap water run through a Brita filter works just fine.  It is healthy and cheap, a winning combo.

However.  It seems no item we put in our mouths is free from quacks.  I need to get Chaos Lee back here to tell you about that time he worked for a call center that took orders for infomercial products.  One company that contracted with them were selling "ionized water," claiming all sorts of incredible health benefits.  During the meeting in which the company was extolling said benefits in order to make order-takers all excited about it, Chaos asked them unnerving questions based on basic chemistry, which ended in them claiming it was ionized because it had an extra neutron.  "That's not ionized water," Chaos said.  "That's heavy water."  Upon which the sales rep became upset, perhaps because health nuts might be hinky about buying something used to cool nuclear reactors.

But these days, "ionized" may sound a little too chemical, and we live in a society so obsessed with going chemical-free that some people market, with a straight face, a "chemical-free chemistry set."  Deborah Blum had Things to say about that.  And this.  After that last episode, I really hope she doesn't hear about this newest craze, because she might do herself an injury.  Still, the resulting blog post would be entertaining.

The newest craze, it appears, is for "organic water."
Perched on a white tablecloth we noticed some very sleek water bottles, labeled Illanllyr SOURCE. A serious guy named Eric Ewell eagerly offered us a taste, "Try this pristine organic water." We choked back a giggle. Organic? Really?

As the company's website says, "Illanllyr ... comes from our sources beneath certified organic fields in west Wales in the UK." So, Ewell says, the water has never been tainted with chemicals, making it organic as it as it emerges from the ground.

Now, when I hear the word "organic" combined with "water," I'm thinking of organic matter like cow shit floating around in it.  Especially since it's beneath "certified organic" fields.  Already not really getting the super-healthy vibe.  And while the website touts the water's location beneath a farm that's never been farmed any other way than "organic," thus supposedly ensuring the water is "organic" by proxy, those of us who know our geology are wondering about the details of the aquifer it comes from.  Water has this distressing tendency to travel, and who knows what non-organic ickyness it's toured through?  I mean, really.  Never?  Never ever tainted with a single chemical?  Not in the whole history of the earth?  The gentleman has as much to learn about the water cycle as he does chemistry.

I notice Mr. Ewell or his staff have very carefully not put those "not tainted with chemicals" claims on their website.  Someone seems to have realized that their water does, in fact, contain chemicals.  They call them "minerals," so as not to scare the anti-chemical crowd away, but it's loaded with 'em:

As for his "never been tainted with chemicals" claim made in person, I hate to break it to him: minerals are chemicals.  So, in fact, is H2O.  That's two hydrogens and an oxygen, bonding into a water molecule, which is (cue scary music) a chemical!!!eleventyzomgwe'reallgonnadiiiiieeeee!!!!!!!

And if you purchase it from Mr. Ewell, a very expensive chemical it is, too.

But let's get back to this "organic" claim.  Those of us who aren't instinctive chemists have skimmed that word, thinking of it in the colloquial sense of "what you tell people something is so they'll pay twice as much for it, believing it's all-natural and much better for you than that non-organic shit."  But of course, chemists are already prone on the floor, pounding their fists in the carpet and laughing helplessly, and Ed Yong is horrified:

When I read that tweet, I fell on the floor pounding fists into carpet, etc.  I may not be as well-versed in chemistry as I should be, but I do know that in chemistry, "organic" means "it's got carbon in."  Now, let's see what we get when we add a little C to our  H2O, hence making it organic:

So, my darlings, remember: no water on earth is organic, and if you ever have the pleasure of someone trying to sell you "organic" water in person, you are now free to ask them why they think one of the main ingredients in embalming fluid is so much healthier than plain ol' dihydrogen oxide.


20 July, 2011

Alaska, OHMMWCB Part 2: Tracy Arm

With a title that long, sometimes you just need an acronym.

Welcome back!  For those who missed it, here's a link to Part 1 - Mendenhall Glacier. Today we're headed down Tracy Arm toward a glacier we'll never reach, but that's okay--as any number of poets will attest, it's the journey that counts.  Tracy Arm is a fjord near Juneau, a body of water we sailed where once there was only glacial ice.  There's no way to decide whether Mendenhall Glacier or Tracy Arm was more amazing.  There were too many icebergs for the captain to maneuver the ship around the last corner to Sawyer Glacier, and I have zero complaints because my mind was already thoroughly blown by the journey there.

You see, the cruise ship we were on was a rather large cruise ship.  I don't have a lot to go on comparison-wise, having only been on the one, but man that boat was HUGE.  Tracy Arm is...  well, rather narrow.  We were constantly threading a needle made of majestic, towering rock faces.  I lament the inability of mere mortal cameras to capture that feeling properly.  I felt dwarfed, insignificant, overawed.  Beyond a certain point, I edged into sensory overload; the terrain was just too relentlessly magnificent to really parse.  The human brain can only handle so much awesome.

Let's see, shall we?

19 July, 2011

Dojo Summer Sessions: What To Do When the Muse Is On Vacation

I think my Muse has headed south for the summer.  The wretched dominatrix has this infuriating habit of vanishing about the time I need her most, and I get the impression she's in one of those Mexican hotels that's got a bar in its pool and a nice view of the Sea of Cortez, drunk off her ass and laughing at me.

Where My Muse probably is right now
So here I am, left behind, doing the dirty work of cleaning the house and feeding the cat and working ye olde day job, with nary a useful literary thought in my head.  Staring at the blank page results in tension headaches and perpetually blank pages.  Attempts at research end early and badly, as an overwhelming sense of, "WTF was I thinking?  I can't do this any justice!" destroys any bits learned.  And it just seems so much easier to give up, go laze about in the sun and do my damnedest to imitate my cat (sans random attempts at homicide).

Almost every writer goes through these phases.  Your Muse, in fact, may be partying it up with mine right now.  And they're not physical entities, so we can't exactly hop a plane to Mexico (don't we wish!) and haul them back by their scruffs.

What to do?

Well, for one thing, have a blog that you must regularly update.  Because then, it won't matter how uninspired you are - you have to post something because you have readers, and your readers expect you to write.  Even if you only have one reader, that's still a reader.  Don't let that reader be all understanding about your inability to provide content.  Advise them when they try that, "It's okay, I understand you're not feeling up to it, blog when you're ready" shit that it's not acceptable.  They're supposed to be your cattle prod, not your enabler.  So even if they think it's okay for you to slack off, ask them to lie to you and say that it is not.  This will force you to come up with some words.

Do some reading while you're stuck.  Or watch a movie, or go for a walk, or hang out with friends, or take in a lecture, or just about anything, really.  Walk away from the blank screen and get some life experience.  Do those things you're not allowed to do when the Muse is standing over you with a whip.  Those things will, eventually, feed back in to your writing, and might just spark a little something.

Do something completely random and new, that you have not done before, while you're at it.  Novelty may not always be pleasant, but it can shake loose some creativity.

Do creative things other than writing.  Edit photos, play with collages, build models, sew, paint, make music, whatever.  I've gotten myself through some dry spells by doing that.  It takes the pressure off the writing side of your creativity so it can recover, while still building your creative muscle.

Make a little list.  Break out the things you must write or do in order to write into manageable chunks, and do them.  Force yourself to spend an hour working on said task, no matter how badly you feel you're doing it.  Then walk away and do something else.  Come back and take on the next thing on the list (or just pick the next thing that looks doable, no matter what order it's in).  Lather, rinse, repeat, until hey presto - you've done some writing!

Organize your shit.  If you're one of those writers who lets things get chaotic, now's a good time to put your writing house in order.

Read up on the bidness.  Plenty of blogs and books out there that talk about everything from the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling to finding agents (if you're going the traditional route) to self-publishing to marketing and all points in between.  If you ever want to make a living writing, you've got to keep up with the business side of things.  During a bout of writer's block is as good a time as any, even if you feel you'll never ever write a worthwhile word again (you will).

And if you have to, if nothing's working, go do one of those writing exercises that are so often plastered all over popular how-to-write sites.

The Muses will return from Mexico.  Eventually.  And now you'll have at least a handful of pages to wave in their faces and scream, "While you've been drinking yourself into oblivion in the hotel pool, some of us have been working!"

That's always rewarding.