Monday, May 26, 2014

Honoring more than one type of the fallen

A friend of mine reposted the usual Memorial Day image of a uniform with the text that starts off "It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech..."

I honor members of our military for their courage and sacrifices, including my uncle whom I never knew because he died in the Vietnam War. I do want people to recognize that Memorial Day is about remembrance, not just barbecues and appliance sales.

But soldiers by themselves don't give us a free society. Just look at North Korea or any other totalitarian country. Picture what your life would be like if all you knew was what the government and the corporations wanted you to know.

In 2013, at least 70 journalists worldwide were killed in connection with their work, and there was a 129% increase in abductions, along with countless acts of violence and intimidation, jailings, and other silencings. None of these martyrs charged a nest of machine guns, but I'm sure all of them knew that they were putting themselves in real danger through their attempts to shine spotlights on everything from corruption to war crimes.

This is the day to honor members of the armed services who gave their lives in service to the United States of America. They deserve it. But nobody should try to honor them by belittling people who, in their own ways, fight (or fought) for the same ideals of truth, justice, and freedom.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Belated Hugo Awards rundown

The Hugo Awards are fan-voted recognitions of the best writing, art, and related work in science fiction. As a member of LoneStarCon3, the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention held in San Antonio, Texas, over Labor Day Weekend, I was eligible to vote for the 2013 Hugos, and did so. I took notes while reviewing the nominated works, meaning to post about them, but never got around to it. Partly that was because I wanted to go back and read through the categories I hadn't had time for before, but that didn't work out due to the job and life and stuff.

This week, nominations are opening up for the 2014 Hugo Awards, to be presented at LonCon3, i.e. Worldcon in London. I won't be attending that con unless I win the lottery, but I'm considering getting a supporting membership anyway because that will give me access to electronic versions of most of the officially nominated works, which is a great value.

Regardless, I can submit nominations now for the 2014 awards because of my LoneStarCon3 membership. And before I start thinking about that, I want to finally clear away my thoughts about the 2013 Hugos.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Sleepy Hollow" and a quick note on "lieutenant"

I watched the premiere of "Sleepy Hollow" (LOOSELY based on Washington Irving's story) on Monday and found it entertaining enough to keep watching for at least a few more weeks. My officemates also liked it, which will help keep the momentum going, along with the fact that it's being filmed near my hometown.

One thing I thought the show didn't explore enough was how disorienting it must have been for Ichabod Crane to find himself in modern times. (I did like that they gave him a moment to be puzzled by the paved road before he almost got run over.) To be fair, the pilot was just an hour long, and they had a lot of plot to cram in there, and it would have dragged the show down for him to be asking about how they can light up a room without candles, etc. He adapted awfully quickly, but I hope they keep using little points like his fascination with power windows to point out that he is a fish out of time. I expect they will, for comic relief if nothing else.

One of the ways they'll keep reminding us about his origin, without actually spending any time on it, is his accent. Ichabod was born back before America and England became "two countries divided by a common language," so although he's American, he has what sounds like a slight English accent (No, there isn't one English accent any more than there's one American accent, but you know what I mean.). The actor, Tom Mison, is English, so we shouldn't have to worry about his dropping it.

At one point during the pilot, Ichabod pronounces the policewoman's title as "lef-tenant" instead of "lew-tenant." Being a longtime fan of Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery and period dramas, I was not surprised by this British usage. But it did occur to me to wonder just why it's pronounced differently.

According to Google, many people have asked this question before me. I stopped looking after visiting about a dozen links. Ken Greenwald at Wordwizard seemed to have the most comprehensive explanation:
In any case, the pronunciations with "f" and "v" are reflected in various 14th-century English spellings of ‘lieutenant,’ which included ‘leef-,’ ‘leve-,’ ‘lyff-‘ and later ‘lief-,’ ‘live-,’ ‘liev-,’ and ‘uff-.’
Other early forms reflected a "w" pronunciation, among them ‘lu-,’ ‘lieu-,’ ‘lyue-,’ and ‘lew-.’ 
So people disagreed on the pronunciation of lieutenant long before the United States were born or thought of (yes, the U.S. took a plural back then, before becoming an it).

Greenwald went on to say that the U.S. settled on the "lew-tenant" pronunciation largely due to  Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, who "almost single-handedly promulgated American pronunciations as well as American spellings."

But before Webster, even with various people disagreeing for centuries on how to pronounce it, was there any preferential rift in pronunciation between the two sides of the ocean? I wonder if the English-American split may have arisen or broadened during the American Revolution when non-British Europeans came to help drill, advise, and lead the Continental soldiers. Baron von Steuben probably would have used the Deutsch "leutnant" (loit-nant), but the Marquis de Lafayette would have assuredly used the French pronunciation (as "in lieu of"). Lafayette was popular, so that could have helped his way of saying it to become preferred.

If anyone has better explanations or links, do let me know!

UPDATE 11/20/13: We found out several episodes ago that Ichabod was actually a British soldier who decided to fight on the American/anti-apocalypse side, not someone born in North America. So that explains the accent. And yes, the show has continued to give us merry-making moments of Ichabod agog and/or aghast at modern life, such as a 10% tax on breakfast pastries, whereas the 2% Stamp Act tax was enough to foment rebellion in his day -- oh, but it turns out that the Tea Party was actually just a fortuitous diversion for secret anti-apocalypse operations. I love the combination of action, emotion, humor, and crazy in this show.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Non-spoilery review of the Glamourist Histories series by Mary Robinette Kowal

I read Mary Robinette Kowal's debut novel, "Shades of Milk and Honey," a few years ago when it came out. It's a novel of manners set in Regency England, with the addition of magic. The form magic takes in this world is glamour, a limited form of illusion that is mostly women's work, used for adorning the ladies and their homes, although there are a few male professionals who basically combine art and interior decoration. Much of the plot is similar to a somewhat simplified "Pride and Prejudice," although some elements are reversed and it builds up to a dramatic action-adventure conclusion. I thought it was a good read, entertaining if a little light, and I planned to look for her later books.

Last week, I spotted her third book in the Glamourist Histories, "Without a Summer," and checked it out. I also tracked down SoMaH again and found the second book, "Glamour in Glass." I figured it would take a week or so to get through them.

I finished them in three nights, one per night. I couldn't put them down, not even SoMaH, which was better than I remembered.

GiG is similar in tone, and like the first, it has a slow, weaving build to a dramatic finish, but other elements are very different. Although the protagonists have interesting, character-based conflicts, they are in Belgium and are increasingly affected by world events, including Napoleon's return to France, rather than mere social mores and misunderstandings. The viewpoint character, Jane, has to make hard choices and endured real consequences. The implications of glamour are examined and expanded. Another satisfying read.

But it was "Without a Summer" that really sold me on the series and the author. We see more of the social strata of the world now, with prejudices (examined prejudices, obviously not the author's views) spurring some people's actions. Along with historically accurate class, racial, and religious prejudices, the public irrationally blames coldmongers, specialized glamourists who help preserve food and suchlike, for the unusually long-lasting cold weather of 1816. The coldmongers were seemingly a convenient throwaway element from the first book, but here they become a major plot element. I love it when backstory comes to the forefront like that.

Other elements from the first book are also revisited in the third book, and revelations about longstanding misperceptions occur. In fact, MRK uses a wonderful metaphor for this cascade of revelations, and I was gasping, "Oh! OH! Wow!" as they all coalesced and bound all three books together. A meta-metaphor, if I can use such a term.

I went through a number of passages from the first and third books today, and yes, there were some strong hints of the hidden truths there, so MRK definitely played fair with the readers. But like Jane, I had glossed over those things as I kept following the current main actions, and so they were simultaneous revelations for me.

Some significant mistakes and misjudgments are made by the viewpoint character, who is so smart and perceptive in other ways, and MRK acknowledges Jane's debt to Austen's "Emma" in her afterword.  I'd be a little disenchanted, so to speak, if I thought MRK were just going through Austen's canon and adding glamour; however, the second book is its own thing, and even in the first and third books, there are plenty of non-magical plot elements and character actions that Austen would never have dreamed of writing. MRK can and does thank Austen, and I also noticed a few fun Easter Egg references to other authors' works, but she is definitely building her own rich world here. I can't wait to see where MRK takes this series next.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

My favorite Hugo nominee: Ken Liu's "Mono no aware"

I just submitted my Hugo ballot, a few minutes before voting closed at midnight CDT on July 31. Because I got my Worldcon membership just two weeks ago, I wasn't able to get through all the books and stories that were e-mailed to me, but I did the best I could, and finished roughly half. I'll post my more complete reactions later, but I wanted to go ahead and praise one of the nominees.

Ken Liu's "Mono no aware" moved me to tears. I had to stand up and walk around for about 10 minutes before I could return to my self-imposed reading reading marathon.

What an extraordinary work this is, heartbreaking, breathtaking, and inspiring. In this 32-page short, Liu packs an amazing amount of story, context, understanding, and poetry.

“The stars shine and blink.
We are all guests passing through,
A smile and a name.”

According to an interview with the author, mono no aware means an empathy for the inevitable passing of all things.  The protagonist draws strength and motivation from this concept, but his actions also exemplify some of the things from life that endure: courage and love. I must find more of Ken Liu to read. As far as I am concerned, this short story is the all-category winner, the Best in Show of the Hugos.

Friday, July 26, 2013

WorldCon56-Bucconeer Panels Appendix

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm swamped with reading Hugo nominees, so I'm too busy to write original material right now. Instead, I'm posting an e-mailed trip report from the 1998 WorldCon. This is the appendix, where I wrote about individual panels at the con.

OK, here it is:

Panels appendix to my report on the 56th World Science
Fiction Convention (WorldCon 56, "Bucconeer") Aug. 5-9
in Baltimore, by Patricia Elkins Matson.
I had a blast, although I was run ragged a lot of the
time.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Worldcon 56/Bucconeer

I had a wonderful, although short, vacation with my family last week. Now I am snowed under again. This time the duty is reading for pleasure: I have decided to go to LoneStarCon3, the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention, and I have about a week to decide on my votes for the Hugo awards. I've read some of the materials, but there's a lot more to try to get through.

I'll probably post about my votes and reasons after that, but I don't have time for original writing right now. Instead, I'll post the contents of an e-mail I sent out to friends and family in 1998 after Bucconeer, the 56th WorldCon. (Appendix will be posted tomorrow.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

What do you do with a graphic novel?

I was telling my sister about Kings in Disguise, a fine graphic novel that follows a boy as he rides the rails during the Great Depression, encountering The Ford Hunger March/Massacre and various other situations, but saying "I read it" seemed inadequate for how I experienced it. One reads a book or an essay, but a graphic novel uses art to inform the text, and text to inform the art. One views a painting or looks at a sculpture, but that's not how one describes the act of, well, going through a graphic novel. Is there a separate word for what you do with a graphic novel? I can't think of one, but it seems as though there should be.

Growing up, I never thought of what I was doing with comic books as anything but reading them, but then again, I was much more focused on the stories than on the artwork. Occasionally, I would stop and admire a particularly well-executed panel, but to me, they were basically densely illustrated short stories. I was more interested in what Spider-Man was doing than in what he looked like while he was doing it -- of course, subconsciously I was taking in many details about the atmosphere and situation and perspective while I was skimming through the pages, and I realize that many people did and do care much more about the art of comics/graphic novels than I did at the time, but the story was what I focused on then.

I stopped following comics regularly sometime after Marvel started publishing about five versions of Spider-Man and at least three of X-Men -- I couldn't keep up, monetarily or temporally. However, in college my friends introduced me to other, independently published comics (not Marvel or DC), expanding beyond superhero struggles to new stories ranging from A Distant Soil (dystopian SF featuring some openly gay major characters, revolutionary back then!) to the beginnings of "true" graphic novels such as the Pulitzer-winning Maus.

A couple of years ago, my county library started developing collections of graphic novels, and I caught up on some classics and began broadening my horizons with new ones. This is where I found James Vance's "Kings in Disguise" recently.

Lots of definitions of graphic novels exist. Some people just consider the term a pretentious renaming of comic books, and there are plenty of publications called graphic novels that are simply hardcover volumes that bundle runs of regular periodical comics. I prefer to use the term to refer to a novelistic, stand-alone story, or at least a well-defined, self-contained arc within a series, told through a combination of artwork and words.

But again, what is it that you do with a graphic novel, to experience the story? What naturally occurs to me is "read," although that seems too limited, so I'll do what I often do and check out definitions and origins.

The very first listing from Merriam-Webster is "to receive or take in the sense of (as letters or symbols) especially by sight or touch." Huh, that's actually not very limited at all. There are about 30 other definitions and sub-definitions of the word. Maybe it's not that the word "read" is too limited, it's just that I've been thinking of it in unnecessarily narrow terms.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the word "read" comes from quite a number of roots, ranging from Old English to proto-Germanic to Old Church Slavonic, mostly meaning something along the lines of to advise or consider. It started to be seen in writing with the meaning of "to make out the character of (a person)" in the 1600s, and was gradually transformed into interpretation of written symbols after that. Aha, here's something pertinent: "Most languages use a word rooted in the idea of "gather up" as their word for "read" (cf. French lire, from Latin legere)." So other languages use different words -- obviously, but coming from different roots, to describe the act that English speakers call reading. Maybe they'd be even more applicable!


I'd be interested to find out what other languages do with the concept of graphic novels. I have a germ of German and a speck of Spanish, but neither kernel of knowledge extends to nuances. Do Japanese people simply "read" manga, or do they use some word separate from "reading" that explicitly combines interpreting text with looking at art? Can any of my multilingual readers tell me?

Edited to Add:
Coincidentally, I just ran across an interview with James Vance, the author of "Kings in Disguise."
Tom Spurgeon at "The Comics Reporter" interviews him about his recent KiD sequel, "On the Ropes" (which is actually based on a play he wrote before KiD), but he also asks him about KiD:
JV: "The truth is, I thought of it in terms of a collected work from day one, and that's the way we approached it. If you look at those individual comics, you'll see there's no concession to serialization in the story itself, no cliffhangers or any of the mechanics that you see in regular monthly comic books."
When he's asked about OtR, he discusses the labor movement as well as how his characters make their decisions and realize the consequences -- fascinating. I hope I get a chance to read OtR, too.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Memory and strings

"Tie a string around your finger."
This is an old-fashioned memory prompt from before when memos started arriving via PDAs, computer calendars and smartphones -- you tie a string around your finger to help you remember that you're supposed to remember something. It doesn't tell you what you're supposed to remember, mind you, but at least you'll be aware of the need. Sooner or later, it will chafe, or you'll just happen to notice it, and maybe at that point, you'll be able to buy milk on the way home, or otherwise accomplish whatever deed you could only remind yourself about before.

In the modern era, of course, strings have another meaning related to memory. A string is a linear artifact with a beginning and an end; in computer coding, a string is a sequence of characters. A character string generally stands for something; it can represent a variable or a constant, and you (or your computer code) can manipulate it or compare it with other strings in order to make a decision.

One type of character string that many people use daily is a password. You must enter all the password's characters in their correct sequence, like the numbers for a combination lock, except that here you're matching a data string instead of clicking tumblers.

I was thinking a few days ago about the character strings I hold in my own memory. I used to remember a lot of telephone numbers, for my office, my home, my parents, and several other relatives and a few friends. Now I know only two full telephone numbers -- my home and my cell -- and four-digit office extensions for myself and two other people. Everything else is stored in my cell or written down somewhere.

However, there's a lot else I have to remember: My work terminal password, my work software ID and password, my work email password, and a few other strings that I use daily for work; at home, I have a couple more e-mail accounts, four social media accounts, and several more log-ons that I use often enough to hold in my memory, all with different IDs and passwords, plus my Social Security number, PIN, and some more identifiers.

So even though I feel a little silly sometimes because I don't know anybody's phone number anymore, I need to remember that actually I'm giving my memory a pretty good workout most days. I'm counting 32 strings, although I may have forgotten one or two!

How about you? Can you count up how many character strings you use often enough to carry around in your head? Tell me! If you don't have time to tally them up right now, well, maybe you can just tie a string around your finger.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Compale (a portmanteau)

I was in a meeting Tuesday and the guy next to me stumbled over his words, saying something would "compale -- I mean, pale in comparison to" something else. I knew what he meant by "compale" before he went on to correct himself; it seemed perfectly obvious to me.
I rather like the idea of "compale" being a word of its own -- it's a little more efficient than the parent phrase, and I can't think of any other single word that already exists to fit this niche.  Although its spelling is nearly identical to "compile," the pronunciation is quite different, so I don't think it would be too confusing.
I am going to look for an opportunity to use this in conversation sometime, and see what kind of reaction I get.
I'm thinking of it as an intransitive verb, used with the preposition "to" -- e.g., Jean Grey's Marvel Girl compales to her incarnation as The Phoenix, at least as far as power is concerned. If I used it as a transitive verb, which takes and acts on a direct object, that would seem too active, as if I should be using it the other way around (The Phoenix compales Marvel Girl). I want to keep the subject as the weaker, more faded counterpart, as in the original phrase, so I'll make the verb intransitive, not transitive.
Compale would be an example of a portmanteau word, a new word created by combining parts of two or more words to make a new one that also fuses their meanings. This is a little different from a contraction, which uses an apostrophe to signal that two words that normally go in sequence are being compressed into one, or a compound word, which simply runs two words together, with or without a hyphen.
A portmanteau is similar to an elision, which omits sounds within a word or phrase for laziness, to fit a poetic meter, or simply because the speaker thinks it sounds better that way. However, eliding a word or phrase doesn't change the meaning, whereas a portmanteau often tweaks the meaning of the parent words so that the definition is also slightly different, although related. For instance, "spork" is a portmanteau word combined from spoon and fork, but it's a little different from each.
What do you think of my plan to try putting "compale" into usage? Do you have a favorite portmanteau word you'd like to share with me?