Archive for October, 2014

TT: Full Stop, Not Period

October 9, 2014

JANE: So, Alan, while we’re on the subject of British English, back when you sent me your retirement speech (which was very amusing), you used the term “full stop” to mean what we would call a “period.”

 That’s well and good but, here in the U.S., the term “full stop” is used completely differently.  I assume you folks have the equivalent of stop signs, right?

An Important Sign

An Important Sign

 ALAN: Yes. Strangely, we call them stop signs…

 JANE:  Smart aleck!  I needed to check.  For all I know, you could call them “Halt Posts” or something else in need of interpretation.

 Getting back to my point, here a driver is supposed to come to a “full stop” at one of these signs.  Far too often, drivers instead come to a “rolling stop” – which is just what it sounds like, slowing down, but not completely stopping.

 So, what do you folks call the traffic “full stop”?

 ALAN: We stop, or sometimes halt, at a stop sign. Not stopping (even if you can see that the way is clear) is an offence and you can be fined for it. So in those circumstances, the thing that you call a “rolling stop” is illegal.

 JANE: It’s illegal here, too.  However, some people still do it, especially when they think the way is clear.  And I guess the terminology has evolved so that police officers have something to write on a citation or use when issuing a warning.  “Ma’am, you must come to a full stop at a stop sign, but you only came to a rolling stop.  That is not acceptable.”

 ALAN: We do slow down at “Give Way” signs and at unsigned intersections (particularly if we don’t have right of way) and, if necessary, we stop. That slowing down probably corresponds to your “rolling stop,” but we don’t use the phrase.

 JANE: “Give Way?”  Hmm…  That’s probably the equivalent of what we call a “Yield” sign.  We’re not required to slow down at unsigned intersections at all.  I’m not sure if that’s a very good custom because I think that contributes to people blowing through stop signs.

 I wonder if traffic signs – at least as far as shape and color go – have been universalized?  I’m not enough of a world traveler to know.

 ALAN: There is an international standard for road signs – it’s known as the Vienna Convention. However, the signatories to the convention are mostly in Europe, though strangely Brazil, Chile and the countries in the Yucatan peninsula have also signed it.

 The USA, Australia and New Zealand have not signed it. Despite that, I think there’s still a huge overlap – after all traffic is traffic is traffic. I imagine though that we have a fair bit of leeway and while I suspect you’d recognise most signs over here, we do have our idiosyncrasies. For example, there’s a road that Robin and I drive along  which requires us to “Beware of Penguins” – there’s a stylised picture of a penguin along with the text. The road goes along the coast with the sea on one side of it and the penguins’ nesting area on the other. Needless to say, the penguins have right of way.

 JANE: Oh!  Send me a picture!  That’s priceless!

Here in New Mexico, cows have right of way, but that’s not nearly as much fun as penguins.

 ALAN: And in Australia you often see signs with a stylised black silhouette of a leaping kangaroo on a yellow background. Obviously “Beware of Kangaroos.” I once saw one of these signs that had been vandalised. Somebody had drawn a silhouette of black lumps falling out of the leaping kangaroo’s bottom. I laughed so hard when I saw it that I almost lost control of the car!

 JANE: During our long drives to visit family (my mom lives part-time in Arizona; my dad used to live in Colorado), Jim and I frequently see signs announcing “Elk Next 50 miles” (mileage will vary).  We eagerly look for elk, but have never yet seen one.  We’ve seen buffalo, though…  That was distinctly startling.

 While I’ve never seen scatological vandalism, for the longest time every one of these elk signs would have a tiny crown painted over the elk.  (I should clarify that, as with the Australian kangaroo, the elk was represented by a silhouette, not a word.)

 This doubtless puzzled, and continues to puzzle, drivers.  However, we heard that the reason for this was that the emblem of the regional chapter of the SCA was a crowned elk, and that someone decided to turn all these signs into the emblem.

 ALAN: That’s the power of advertising for you. Nothing is sacred…

 Actually, ignoring the road signs for the moment, there’s a very fundamental automotive difference between you and me. The fact that we drive on the left and much of the rest of the world drives on the right can be a source of confusion to most visitors to New Zealand. Many tourists hire cars and camper vans for their holiday and sadly there are quite a lot of injuries and deaths caused by the tourists having the wrong driving reflexes and reacting badly in a crisis. I once saw a car with a hand-lettered sign in the back window. It said: “American Tourist. Please be patient!” I thought that was an excellent idea. Perhaps such signs should be mandatory.

 JANE: I agree!

 ALAN: I must confess that I dread the thought of visiting a country like America and having to drive on the “wrong” side of the road. I think it would be very scary.

 As a side effect though, when I read descriptions of car chases in American novels, I am completely unable to visualise what’s going on. The pictures of traffic in my head are all left handed and I simply cannot transpose the one onto the other.  Like Winnie the Pooh, I am a bear of very little brain and I easily get confused.

 JANE: I can understand why.  I find your version very confusing.

 As I’ve mentioned, Jim and I watch a lot of anime.  Japanese drivers sit on the right side of the vehicle.  We were recently waiting the very noir series Witch Hunter Robin.  In this tale, there are several scenes where characters hold covert meetings in parked cars.  I’ll admit, there’s been a time or two when what my brain persists on perceiving as the car’s driver gets out of the car.  Then I jump when the car pulls out into traffic.

 Who’s driving?!!

 ALAN: Sometimes it’s the tiniest things that get in the way. In America, Australia and New Zealand, the signs on the motorways that tell you how far it is to the exit and where the exit road leads to are all white letters on a green background. However in England the motorway signs are white letters on a blue background. The first time I saw the green signs on a New Zealand motorway, I was quite flummoxed. It was far too foreign. It was wrong!

 JANE: I’d feel the same way, too.  Still, it might be safer…  In New Zealand, those “right” colors might lead me to forget that I needed to drive on the wrong side.

 ALAN: The scientist in me wants to do an experiment. Come for a visit, drive me somewhere, and let’s see what happens next.

 JANE: Oh, lordy!  That’s a terrifying prospect…  Still, if Jim and I ever make it there, we’ll need to find a quiet road and experiment.  Then you and I can write a Tangent about it!


Read This! Or This? Or, Maybe, This?

October 8, 2014

At a meeting last week, an older (but still very active) writer of SF told how he had been asked by someone who had never read SF where she should start.

Eyes shining, this gentleman said his reply was something along these lines.  “I said I wished I could be where she was, starting all over again.  Then I mentioned H.G. Wells and Jules Verne…”

What to Suggest?

What to Suggest?

On some level I couldn’t place at the time, this answer bothered me.  It wasn’t until a couple of days later that why I was bothered crystalized.  I’d finished my current read (Dorsai by Gordon R. Dickson) and, when looking at my “to be read” shelf, I realized that I hadn’t finished the new translation of Jules Verne’s Sphinx of the Ice Realm.

My not finishing had nothing to do with the novel as such, but rather with the volume’s format.  In order to pack a considerable amount of material into a 413-page trade paperback –in addition to Verne’s novel, the volume also includes a fascinating introduction, annotations, and the complete text of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (which inspired Verne’s Sphinx) – the publisher used very tiny print.  This challenged my eyes – especially at the end of the day, which is when I usually have time to read.

As I skimmed the opening, trying to decide whether Sphinx would be my next read, I found myself remembering what had been said at the meeting.  Would I recommend Verne and Wells to a new reader of SF?  My gut feeling was “absolutely not.”  Both writers were born in the 1800’s: Verne in 1828, Wells in 1866.  While both were quite creative for their time, much of what they wrote about has become part of the “furniture” of the field: time travel, invisibility, moon shots, mutants.

Moreover, their technology and science is distinctly dated.  When Verne wrote about Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, the submarine and its capacities were purest SF.  Today, submarines are reality.  Another example… Frederick Paul Walter explains in his notes to From the Earth to the Moon, Verne’s original story in its full text (often abridged by English translators) contains formulas that were solidly based on the science of the time.  These days, even with the formulas, the story is more likely to generate derision.

The issues the authors wrote about reflected the political and social agendas of their day.  For a modern reader, unfamiliar with those issues, character motivations are less comprehensible.

Verne offers a special problem in that his works in English were not well served by their translators.  Books were frequently abridged to the point of incomprehensibility.  Therefore, a new reader of SF who picks up an inexpensive reprint of a translation now in the public domain is quite likely to be confused.

None of this is likely to inspire the sort of “gee whiz” excitement that gets a new reader hooked on SF.

Moreover—going back to the original question – the person who asked for recommendations was female.  While both Verne and Wells have occasional interesting female characters, these are the rarities, not the rule.  The majority of their female characters reflect the time period’s values.  They’re homemakers, eager to become wives and mothers.  For a modern female, accustomed to seeing women depicted on television and in movies as starship captains, warriors, detectives, and pretty much any profession at all, this exclusion could be repellant.

Now that I’d figured out why I was bothered, the next question was how would I answer?

I realized that I wasn’t sure.  When I started reading SF, the majority of available books still featured male protagonists, and females in more or less traditional roles.  I just finished re-reading three of Gordon R. Dickson’s “Dorsai” novels.  Although the author says in his intro that the goal of these books is to speculate as to how humanity might evolve in the future – and although each of these novels is set several centuries in the future – female characters are almost invisible.  One spaceship, as I recall, has one female officer and she gets knocked unconscious during a battle.  Each book has a female secondary character, but these serve little purpose but to confuse the male character by being so alien, so female.

I’ll admit.  This didn’t bother me when I started reading SF.   After all, the landscape wasn’t all that different from what I encountered in school, where the majority of the books assigned were by male authors and about male characters.  What female characters appeared had few goals beyond getting a good husband.  But how would a modern reader – male or female – react?

So I toss the question out to all of you…  What books and/or authors would you recommend if asked by someone who wanted to start reading SF?  Don’t assume your audience is a kid.  Lots of adults, made newly aware of SF by movies and television, are interested in finding out what’s going on between the pages.  Would your recommendations change if the person was female?  What questions might you ask to help refine your choices?  Would you feel comfortable recommending the books that got you started?

I’ll be thinking about this, too.  I look forward to comparing notes!

FF: How To Be a Hero

October 3, 2014

The Friday Fragments feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  They are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website.

This is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

This week, what it is to be a hero – and not just in the obvious fashion – keeps coming up.

Ogapoge Contemplates Tactics

Ogapoge Contemplates Tactics

What are you reading?

Recently Completed:

Tactics of Mistake by Gordon R. Dickson.  Somehow I missed this one.  I ended up liking it, although I must admit, the “Man of War” interests me less than the “Man of Philosophy” did.  Loved the idea that, to mercenaries, the rate of acceptable casualties should be zero.

Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  Percy was missing in The Lost Hero.  Now we know where he was.  I liked this one, especially how Riordan dealt with the challenge of not having Percy (who is a pretty major hero) overshadow the new characters.  The audio reader improved!

In Progress:

The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  The seven are assembled.  What exactly is this mysterious “mark”?

A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny.  Trying to hold to one chapter a day for the Twitter book club at #LonesomeOctober.  Finding this very difficult.

Land of Cinnamon Sun by John NizalowskiA collection of essays.  Just getting started.


I have a new craft book, Homemade: The Heart and Science of Handcrafts by Carol Endler Sterbenz, that includes histories of the various crafts.  I am enjoying reading these almost as much as contemplating trying some of the projects.

TT: Thick As?

October 2, 2014

JANE: Alan, I enjoyed your most recent “wot i red on my hols” column, especially the account of everything Jimmy the Painter did to get the exterior of your house cleaned up and repainted.

Thick As?

Thick As?

All that work with sandblasters and high-powered hoses made me very glad that my house is stuccoed.  When we had the exterior redone about five years ago, there was none of that sort of hassle.

ALAN: That’s one of the problems of living in an active earthquake zone. Houses built of wood tend to flex under stress whereas more rigid materials like brick tend to shatter. So wooden houses are safer, and they predominate. But they do have maintenance hassles and you are right, it can be a pain in the neck.

JANE: I hadn’t thought about the earthquake element.  Here stucco is preferred to paint because the heat and dryness are really hard on paint.

Anyhow, the bit where Jimmy nearly crashed to the concrete pavement because a board on his scaffolding snapped in two was pretty scary.

However, the next part of your write-up lost me.  You examined the two broken pieces of planking and exclaimed, “Thick as!”

Why the heck would you do that?

ALAN: There’s a couple of things going on here. We have a saying – “Thick as two short planks” –  which indicates that a person is dumb or stupid (Jethro Tull was riffing on that with the “Thick as a brick” album). So that’s the reference to the two short planks that Jimmy had after his long plank broke in two.

 JANE: I’ve certainly heard “thick as a brick” used here but, these days, I think the saying would be considered somewhat old-fashioned.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard “two short planks.”

ALAN: We do also use that phrase, but the two short planks construction is much more common.

But there’s another aspect as well. Our teenagers (I don’t know about yours) have taken to using comparatives without actually comparing them with anything. “Cool as!” “Sweet as!”, both of these phrases have actually entered the language here, and are now used by lots of people, not just teenagers, to indicate strong approval. So I was playing with that idea as well when I said “Thick as!”

JANE: Hmm… I’ll need to claim ignorance of current “teen-speak.”   “Cool!” has been around for decades.

I’ve also heard “Sweet!”  But that’s also been around for a while.  It even made its way into the sort of hybrid English one often hears in subtitled Japanese anime.  I have an anime in which one character frequently cries out “Swee-toe” when he finds a new item for his collection.

Maybe our readers can fill me in on current American slang.

ALAN: Indeed – “Cool” is even older than I am, and I remember the dinosaurs. I still have fond memories of the pet diplodocus I had when I was a child. Perhaps the cool kids are not as cool as they think they are…

JANE: You had a pet diplodocus?

ALAN: Yes, I did. I was very sad when they went extinct, but I suppose it was inevitable. They had a very unintelligent design.

JANE: What do you mean?

ALAN: Diplodocus was so large that it had two brains to control its body, one in the skull and one at the base of the spine. The skull brain was in charge of the front half of the animal and the spine brain looked after the back half. Pterodactyls, which were mischievous beasts, were well aware of this, and when they wanted to have some fun they would dive down from the sky, land right in the middle of diplodocus’ back, and dig in their claws. The shock of this sudden event would be transmitted to both brains and each would react to escape from the danger. The front brain jumped the body forwards, the back brain jumped the body backwards, and diplodocus tore itself in half. And that’s why the beasts are extinct.

JANE: Ouch!  You got me!  (And I love it.)

ALAN: Where was I? Oh yes…

It occurs to me that since constructions like “Sweet as!” have moved from being used only by teenagers into general use, perhaps we ought to re-write our nursery rhymes:

“Mary had a little lamb
“Whose fleece was white as!”

No – I don’t think it quite works…

JANE:  No.  Definitely not “Cool as!”

As you know, I recently read Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventures of English: The Biography of a Language.  You mentioned that you’d enjoyed his television series.  Wouldn’t it have been boring for you?  I mean, the majority of the book focuses on British English and you already speak it.

ALAN: Indeed I do – but I didn’t know why I was speaking it until Melvyn Bragg told me.  And, among many other things, I learned that the American variety of English corresponds quite closely with the Elizabethan English that the first colonists took with them.

The language in England continued to evolve in odd directions whereas American English, while it did change, remained more static. So Americans can legitimately claim to speak “purer” (perhaps even “better”) English than the English themselves! Bragg even found some isolated colonies in New England that were so removed from the development of mainstream American English that they still had Elizabethan accents.

JANE: He mentioned something similar in the book – which is apparently related to, but not merely a spin-off of, a television show he did.  One of the things, I was enlightened to learn from Bragg that in British English, the word “lumber” means junk or waste material.

Suddenly, the “lumber room” that gets mentioned in so many British novels – at least the older ones I tend to read – made a whole lot more sense.  I’d always wondered why there would be a room for lumber.  I mean, Jim and I do tend to keep scrap lumber left from various building projects, and sometimes it even comes in handy, but a whole room…

ALAN: It works the other way round as well. On several occasions I’ve come across a mudroom in American novels. What’s that? Why is mud so precious and useful that you need to fill a whole room with it?

JANE: Oh…  You’ve made me laugh! (Again!)  A mudroom is a small outer room in which you can leave muddy boots and other messy outdoor attire, so you don’t track dirt into the house.  I must say, that, to my ear, this term is more intuitive than “lumber room.”   In the U.S., “lumber” has completely lost its broader meaning.  It now refers only to wood.

A lumberjack is a man who works cutting timber, not a junk collector.

ALAN:  And don’t forget that a lumberjack also likes to dress in women’s clothing and hang around in bars. Because he’s OK.

JANE: (singing quietly) “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay…”

ALAN: Mind you, I’ve had similar linguistic shocks with Robin’s Australian view of the rooms in the house. We both talk about bedroom (one word), bathroom (one word), and dining room (two words). But then we part company. I say lounge and Robin says lounge room. I agree her version is more logical, but nevertheless it sounds quite strange to my ears.

JANE:  Interesting…  We don’t use “lounge” at all for any room in the house.  I think that family room or T.V. room are what we’d call similar space.

Just goes to show…  You folks lounge, but we don’t.

Speaking of lounging, I should stop lounging and get back to work…  Meantime, any of you readers want to weigh in on “Sweet as” and other trends in teen-speak?

A Night in the Lonesome October

October 1, 2014

There are books I can’t read with appropriate critical detachment.  Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October is one of these.   I remember Roger’s excitement when he started writing it.  He’d had the idea for a long time, up to and including having Gahan Wilson supply the illustrations.  He’d even gone as far as querying Gahan, but at the time the artist was solidly booked and had to decline.

Opener or Closer?

Opener or Closer?

As I recall, Roger told me, Gahan Wilson’s letter declining the project had been very nice.  It even included a sketch of Snuff the dog, “Just as I’d imagined him.”

To be honest, Roger was pretty solidly booked at the time, too, so the story that would become A Night in the Lonesome October lay fallow for many years.  Eventually, Roger found himself writing the novel – even though he had other commitments.  He was very pleased with it and often read me snippets over the phone.

The delight didn’t end once the book was written.  Roger had sent me manuscripts of newly completed works before.

(Can you call a photocopy of a typescript a “manuscript”?  Anyhow, that’s what I mean.)

This was the first time he seemed eager, even impatient, for me to finish something.  It’s a short novel, so I finished my reading pretty quickly.  I had a few suggestions, but they were in the context of general delight.

This time Gahan Wilson was able to make time to do the illustrations.  Roger was disappointed when, for reasons of marketing, Gahan didn’t also get to do the front cover, but the usual author portrait on the back was replaced with a lively caricature of author and artist as Holmes and Watson.  Roger looks almost demonically intent, which is just right, while Gahan Wilson pauses in the middle of sketching a pair of cat’s eyes, as if only just then realizing that they are unaccompanied by a cat.

After the book was completed, Roger read portions of it at various conventions.  At one event, when time ran out, he and his audience went and found an empty room.  Then Roger finished reading the entire book.  The same lively enthusiasm colored Roger’s reading of the book as an audio for Sunset Productions.  Roger had read other of his works to be converted into audio versions, but usually the reading sessions went an hour or so at a time.  This time both he and the sound engineer were having so much fun they did the entire book in one sitting…

I’m not going to say more about the novel because I don’t want to provide any spoilers, instead I’m going to invite you to join me and my friends Julie Bartel and Tori Hansen as we read A Night in the Lonesome October one chapter a day, each day in October.  (There are a prologue and thirty-one chapters, some of which are super short.)

Here’s how this came about…  Tori was at my house, painting the cover for Wanderings on Writing.  As she painted, we got to discussing good books.  I mentioned A Night in the Lonesome October.  Tori commented that she’d read it a while back and really liked it.  Then she brightened and said, “It’s almost October!  I should read it then.”

Memory flashed.   I said, “My friend Julie and her husband, Ken, always read A Night in the Lonesome October one chapter a day through October.  I’ve always wanted to do that.”

Tori agreed that doing this would be fun.  “We could talk about it, sort of a book club.”

Problem…  I see Tori just about every week, but Julie lives in Utah.  So…  How about on-line?  Should we send e-mails or use Facebook?  Wait!  Twitter is perfect for this sort of thing.  Tori and Julie were already on Twitter and I’d just started…

Excitement!  As long as we’re doing this, why not open up the discussion to anyone who wanted to join in?

So that’s what we’re doing.  Since everyone can’t read and post every day, we’re welcoming less frequent posts.  All we ask is that posters not get ahead of whatever day it is in October and that they include the Twitter hashtag, #LonesomeOctober.

We hope you’ll join us starting October 1.  (That’s today!)  It’s going to be lots of fun!