Archive for November, 2015

FF: Chaos Reigns!

November 6, 2015

Well…  I had to have a title.  You decide it if applies!

Silver Considers Flight

Silver Considers Flight

Just a reminder…  The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of descriptions or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  I enjoyed.  Again!

Winter Witch by Elaine Cunningham. (Co-written with Dave Gross.)  Audiobook.  Another Pathfinder universe novel.  Quite good, with two very solid main characters.  I would enjoy reading more of their adventures.

The Great Piratical Rumbustification & The Librarian and the Robbers by Margaret Mahy.

Tick Tock Tales: Twelve Stories to Read Around the Clock by Margaret Mahy.  Alan Robson mentioned this author to me.  In fact, we’ve been talking about her works and will be sharing that chat in a week or so.

In Progress:

Fighting the Flying Circus by Captain Eddie. V. Rickenbacker.  A non-fiction autobiographical account of what is was like to be a fighter pilot in WWI.  Sometimes, a hundred years ago can see like an alien land.

Seventh Grave and Nobody by Darynda Jones.  Audiobook.  Just started.

Also:

Holiday shopping MUST be coming, because my mail box suddenly includes at least one catalog a day.  Looking through them is a fascinating exercise in anthropology.  I wonder what an alien would make of us based on, say, Vermont Country Store’s catalog or Signals?

TT: Slanging New Zealand

November 5, 2015

JANE: Last time you mentioned some uniquely New Zealand slang. I’m particularly intrigued by “tiki tour” and “rattle your dags.” Where do they come from?

Tiki Tours!

Tiki Tours!

ALAN: It’s not clear where the phrase “tiki tour” originated, but one possible explanation (which I’m rather fond of) is that shortly after the end of WWII, the New Zealand government was keen to attract tourists to the country. They felt that tourism could be a big money-spinner and who’s to say they were wrong?

JANE: Uh…  “Money-spinner”?  I get it in context, but I can’t quite grasp the image.  Could you clarify?  How does spinning money produce more?

ALAN: It’s an English phrase rather than specifically a New Zealand one, and it’s such second nature to me that your question actually took me by surprise. But when I thought about it, the first thing that sprang to mind was the fairy tale about the miller whose daughter could spin straw into gold. (Rumpelstiltskin saves the day!). The image of turning something almost worthless into something very precious is a powerful one, and even if the saying doesn’t derive directly from the fairy tale, it really should, because that’s exactly what it means.

JANE: I really like that explanation.  Thank you!  Now, please, go on with tiki tours!

ALAN: Right!  So they organised some rather rambling bus tours of the country under the name Tiki Tours. A Tiki is a traditional Maori carving of a rather squat human figure and I suppose the government felt that it was a quintessentially New Zealand symbol.

Of course, being a government-run initiative, it was hopelessly inefficient and never amounted to much. So the phrase entered the language and was used to denote something rambling and ultimately pointless.

JANE: I love that!   I think I may start using the term “taking a tiki tour” when I need to fill out various forms…  How about “rattle your dags”?

ALAN: “Rattle your dags” is much easier to explain. Dags are the dried clumps of mud and excrement that accumulate around a sheep’s bottom. If the sheep is running fast, it’s easy to imagine that the dags would bang together and make a rattling noise.  (In fact they don’t, but why let reality spoil a good story?)  So “rattle your dags” means “Hurry up!”

JANE: Australia is also known for sheepherding.  Do they use the same term?

ALAN: They do have the phrase, but I think its use is more widespread in New Zealand. Australian sheep tend not to have so many dags because Australian shepherds try hard to keep their sheep’s bottoms clean in order to minimise the possibility of flies burrowing in and laying eggs. Australian flies are much larger and more vicious than New Zealand flies which is why New Zealand shepherds don’t worry as much about dags on their sheep. Actually, most Australian things are much larger and more vicious than their New Zealand counterparts. Including Australians…

JANE: “Dag” also sounds vaguely Scottish.  Do you know if the term is another one influenced by the Scottish settlers?

ALAN: I don’t think so. As is so often the case, the origin of the word is obscure. However the Oxford English Dictionary claims it comes from Late Middle English and may possibly be derived from “tag”.

Both Aussies and Kiwis also use “dag” to describe people or things that are amusingly eccentric. If my dog Jake does something particularly cute, I might point it out and say, “What a dag!” or perhaps “He’s a bit of a dag!”

JANE: Here the phrase might be “What a wag!”  This would have nothing to do with tails, either.  The phrase is a bit old-fashioned, so I can’t even guess at why it was used.

You’re married to an Australian.  How did Robin react to your comment: “Most Australian things are much larger and more vicious than their New Zealand counterparts. Including Australians…”?

ALAN: I haven’t shown it to her yet. She’s larger and more vicious than me…

Actually, one of the things that Robin complains about a lot is the extraordinarily large and complex way that Australia is governed. Their mechanisms are not inherently any more vicious than ours, but they are certainly significantly larger. Robin really likes the much simpler model that we follow in New Zealand – she’s worked in this area and she’s seen the advantages and disadvantages first hand.

JANE: What are some of the differences?

ALAN: Australia has a multi-layered system of government. At the top is the federal government which has two chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The individual states are self-governing (and also have two debating chambers). There are local government organisations within the states as well. In addition, Australia recognises something they call a Territory which are areas within the country not claimed by a State. Territories can be administered by the government or they can be self-governing.

If you find this confusing, you are not alone…

JANE: Oh, this doesn’t sound confusing at all.  This sounds very, very familiar.  Very, very, very familiar…

How does New Zealand manage?

ALAN: It’s dead simple. We have local government and national government. End of story. And our national government only has one assembly. We got rid of the second chamber about fifty years ago, and we’ve never missed it.

JANE: I’m sure someone misses it.  Probably the people who like to argue, rather than actually getting things done.

ALAN: Certainly, one disadvantage of the Australian model is that the lines of demarcation are blurred and it’s hard to determine just who is responsible for what. This makes it very difficult to assign blame when things go wrong (there’s always someone else to point the finger at). Furthermore, the ponderous nature of this multi-layered bureaucracy means that legislative changes are slow and difficult to implement. The Australian national character is very conservative, in the sense of being resistant to change, and I sometimes wonder if this is a reflection of the way they govern themselves. Though that, of course, is very much a chicken and egg question…

JANE: (whispering) Very, very, very familiar…

ALAN: The simplicity of the New Zealand model means that responsibility and lines of demarcation are very clear and well defined. And the single national assembly means that law changes are relatively quick and easy to put into practice. In complete contrast to Australians, New Zealanders have the reputation of being keen to embrace both social and political change. In the thirty-five years that I’ve lived here I’ve seen many quite radical changes take place.

JANE: I’d love to hear an example or two, especially those that reflect the differences in national character.

ALAN: I could witter on about fiscal policy and similar dull subjects, but I think a good reflection of our national character is in the way we interact with our government. New Zealanders are very much in love with technology. Many governmental functions are now available on the web. I recently renewed my passport – it was quick, painless and easy. I didn’t even have to leave home. I filled in a form on a web site, attached a digital photograph of my face and clicked the submit button. A few days later my new passport arrived in my mailbox. Australians can’t do that – there are on-line forms that they can fill in, but the forms have to be printed out and presented in person at the passport office. We’ve completely eliminated that step.

I applied for my pension on line and I recently claimed a tax refund on line. Literal paperwork is well on the way to disappearing over here.

JANE: Nice, I suppose, although I can see how such procedures would make identity theft and related forgeries much easier.

ALAN: In theory that’s probably correct, but in practice it doesn’t seem to happen. I imagine they have a lot of safeguards in place behind the scenes…

I also think that the make-up of our parliament reflects our national character very well indeed. Our MPs are a very heterogeneous and multiracial bunch (not just Maori and Pakeha). We have members from most of the major religions (as well as self-professed atheists). We have openly gay and transgender MPs and we currently have one who is completely deaf. I’m not sure what (if any) special arrangements have been made for her, but she is very active in debates and more than pulls her weight. None of this raises any eyebrows at all. But I simply can’t imagine any of it happening in Australia.

JANE: Or, sadly, in many parts of the U.S.  I have one friend who I think would make an excellent politician.  I asked her why she didn’t run for office, and she said she felt her open atheism would make it pointless.

How about a “social” example?

ALAN: OK, here’s a good example. Unlike Australia, we’re almost a completely cashless society, and we’ve been that way for all of this century. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a cheque – indeed, a lot of places now have big signs up saying that they will not accept cheques. Even the smallest shops have EFTPOS terminals, so cash is almost never needed.

JANE: We’re moving that way, too.  I still use cash, but only in a few places.  Mostly I use my credit card, then pay off the balance each month.  This way I don’t pay interest charges, but I also don’t need to worry about my balance as I would with a debit card.

ALAN: Amusingly, when cash is required, New Zealanders and Australians get confused when trying to spend money in each other’s countries. Both countries have $1 and $2 coins. In New Zealand, the $2 coin is larger than the $1 coin, which makes logical sense because it’s a larger denomination. But in Australia, the $2 coin is smaller than the $1 coin, which is just plain weird. Not that any Australian would ever admit that…

JANE: Well, the idea that larger is worth more does seem to make sense…

ALAN: Exactly so. But we seem to have segued into discussing definitions of national characteristics. I have some thoughts about how we can pin that down. Do you want to talk about it next time?

JANE: That sounds fascinating – and challenging.  Let’s do it!

What Were You (for Halloween)?

November 4, 2015

As someone who was both very shy and very imaginative, Halloween was always an ordeal for me. I dreamed of wonderful costumes that often didn’t work out quite the way I had hoped.

Alchemist (Camera Shy Variation)

Alchemist (Camera Shy Variation)

In those days of old, Trick or Treating was an outdoor activity. As far as I know, there were none of the mall parties, church gatherings, or other indoor, structured activities that kids go to today. If there were, we certainly never attended any. Late October in Washington D.C could be balmy or brutally cold, so one never knew if a costume would need to be covered with a coat.

Detail, back of coat

Detail, back of coat

Oddly, enough, probably my fondest Halloween memory comes from when I was in high school. My sister, Ann, and I had (reluctantly) decided we were probably too old to go trick or treating. Our younger sister, Susan, had a friend to go with, so we couldn’t even use her needing an escort as an excuse to dress up.  We decided we would be “grown-up” and answer the door for the occasional trick or treater who labored up the steep hill that was our driveway.

However, as Halloween evening came on, we both felt the lack. I don’t even recall which of us had the impulse, but we decided that we could at least be dressed up when we answered the door. Ann dove into her copious hoard of make-up (she was always signing up for free introductory offers, then cancelling) and skillfully made us up as two of the members of the band KISS. She was the space alien (Ace Frehley’s role) and I was the cat (Peter Criss’s role).

Jeans, tee shirts, vests, and various odds and ends of jewelry made pretty good last-minute rock star costumes.  I still treasure the faded Polaroid someone snapped.

As I said, we’d figured we’d just answer the door for the occasional trick or treater. However, an adult neighbor — Leone Hollander — dropped by, found us dressed up with nowhere to go, and dragged us out.  I can’t remember if we rang many doorbells, but we certainly enjoyed being part of the magic of the night.

In the years that followed, I dressed up sometimes, sometimes not.  Halloween was evolving toward an adult social occasion, but if there were any big college-sponsored parties, I didn’t go.  A couple of years later, when I was in grad school, we had parties.  I have fond memories of Chuck (Charles E.) Gannon, in anticipation of current social trends, coming as a nerd, complete with pocket protector, and such wonderful acting skills, that initially I didn’t recognize him, even though he’d been coming over to my place pretty much weekly for years.

Except for a brief jaunt into what is now called “cosplay” at an SF convention when I lived in Virginia, I never did much with costumes outside of Halloween.  I suppose that’s why I look forward to the excuse.  Every few years, our friends Patricia Rogers and Scott Denning throw an amazing, astonishing, over-the-top Halloween party.  This year the theme was Mad Scientists and their creations.

Jim immediately decided that he would attend as a Mad Scientist version of an archeologist.  This involved him bedecking himself with every item he could hang on his belt. (Did you know that they make sheaths for trowels?)   He clipped on his “official” Area 51 badge, slung his “real” badge around his neck, and inserted a variety of green alien figures into his hatband and pocket.  He even brought a shovel.  (This ended up with him getting confused with several people who had shown up as grave diggers, but he handled the confusion with grace and style.)

In part because of some research I’ve been doing of late, I decided to go as a modern variation of the oldest mad scientist around: the Alchemist.  My friend, Dominique, kindly donated a lab coat and I set to work with stencils and Sharpy markers.  There are numerous interpretations of alchemy, so I decided to give a nod to several at once.

Alchemy is usually credited with having roots in Egypt.  (Many sources claim that “chem” is actually “Khem” – one of the names for the “black land” of Egypt.)  Therefore, in honor of this Egyptian heritage, I wrote my name in hieroglyphs (and English) on the upper pocket.  I also added a Horus to one sleeve and made an ankh the centerpiece of the back.

However, alchemy is also associated with China as well, so I labeled the two lower pockets with the ideograms for the two most commonly-sought items in alchemy: long life (or immortality) and wealth.  “Long life” was written in the auspicious color red, which is also the color traditionally associated with the Philosopher’s Stone.  “Wealth” was done in gold.  In each pocket I carried appropriate items: “gold” nuggets and a nicely sparkly red gem for the Philosopher’s Stone.

Traditionally, the two most important elements in alchemy are mercury – usually associated with a dragon – and sulfur – usually associated with a lion.  I added these to the front, and a unicorn (associated with purification and/or perfect transmutation) to the sleeve that did not already bear Horus,

I had many thoughts as to how I might adorn the back of the coat, but in the end I found myself attracted to a cryptic quotation: “Mystery glows in the rose bed and the secret is hidden in the rose.”  I wrote this in a curve over an ankh, then added roses (a very alchemical flower, fraught with occult meanings) of various colors to both front and back to tie the whole together.

I found a pendant with a phoenix (symbolic of the completed transformation).  Since college, I’d had a pair of cloisonné earrings, one of which was a six-pointed star, the other a crescent moon.  As these were also adorned with roses, they seemed the perfect final touch.

Scott and Patricia have many friends in the local SF/F writer community, so I was far from the only writer there in costume.  Walter Jon Williams was dashing as a khaki-clad explorer, complete with pith helmet and someone’s head in a bag.  His wife, Kathy Hedges, was elegant as a two-headed pumpkin monster.  George R.R. Martin came disguised in a classic Venetian carnival mask.  Steve (S.M.) and Jan Stirling wore lab coats, Jan adding a fetching green pageboy wig, that suited her astonishingly well.  Bob (Robert E.) Vardeman was obviously fresh from the dissecting lab; the amount of blood on his surgeon’s cap made one wonder if he might have been indulging in a transplant.  Joan Saberhagen was very much in keeping with modern recycling trends, and carried a bag soliciting spare parts for her next monster.  Vic Milan was a calmly creepy scientist.

I’m sure I’m forgetting some – and that I missed others, since the party was very, very, very well attended.

So what were you for Halloween?  Do you have any fond memories of costumes past?