Jul 31, 2015

Cabinets of Wonder

Cabinets of Wonder by Christine Davenne explorers those strange precursors of modern museums: wunderkammer, grottoes, or cabinets of curiosities. Cabinets of wonder have been around since the Reneissance, and the book explores those collections, old and new.

These fascinate me partly because they were very much in vogue in the Victorian era as well, so I bought this book mostly for inspiration, but it's a work of art in itself. Beautiful. I especially enjoyed the section on modern cabinets of curiosities.

I feel like I got my money's worth.

Jul 30, 2015

Terribleminds Challenge: Why Do You Write?

Last week's Terribleminds challenge was an essay this time. I did the challenge, but didn't have any way of posting it from my trip, so here goes. Better late than never, right?

Why I Write

I’ve always loved stories. I think that’s where it began. I haven’t been a writer that long, but I’ve been a reader as long as I can remember.  To quote George R. R. Martin: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
This is what it’s all about.
Reading is an escape, an adventure, a drug. I don’t understand people who don’t read. If I go a day or two without reading, I get antsy. Difficult to be around. I need my books. My favorites tend to be sci-fi and fantasy. They’re the books that got me through some tough times growing up. And why read hundreds of pages about someone’s dreary existential angst described with absolute realism? Wouldn’t you rather ride a dragon or meet some aliens?
I would.
At first I wrote fanfiction. Actually, I didn’t even know what fanfiction was when I wrote my first Start Trek story. Fanfiction is a great way to begin writing, because you know the world and you know the characters, so it’s easier to start with. Of course you don’t own that universe, so you shouldn’t be making money off it, but I don’t think that’s much of an issue. I, like other fans, wrote fanfiction because I loved the characters and the world.  Then I gradually moved on to writing my own stuff.
I’ve always suffered from an overactive imagination, and I sometimes have very vivid dreams. There was one particular one that started recurring every night, and it didn’t stop before I started writing the story down. When I get a story idea, it feels like an itch inside my skull that gets worse and worse if I don’t do anything about it. So I write to get the stories out of my head, I guess.
On the macro scale, writing is a way to make sense of the world; why do people behave like they do? Why did this awful thing happen? On the micro scale, it’s a way of coping with your own issues and personal tragedies, the little injustices and cruelties of daily life. Writing is therapy. I’m a happier person when I write. For that alone writing is worth it. 
I think a lot of writers have a sense of not belonging. I was a socially awkward, chubby kid in a Star Trek t-shirt. You can guess what happened. Suffice to say that I felt like an outsider and escaped into books. The scars have faded but they’re still there. Maybe it’s true that happy people don’t write? Why would they?
I also think that most of us have a need to do something creative. My mother is awesome at sewing and my grandfather did oil paintings. Writing is my way of relaxing.  My day job is stressful and draining at times, and writing provides much-needed relief.
Having said all that, mainly I write because I enjoy it. It’s fun. I love the rush you get when you finish a first draft, the tingly, bubbly feeling of writing a funny scene, and even the nitpicky joys of editing. I love creating something from nothing, something that would have never existed if it weren’t for me. I write for myself, but it’s pretty great if someone else reads a story of mine and likes it.
I write because I can.
I write because I need to.
I write because it helps me be a happier person.
But above all, I write because I love to.


Jul 29, 2015

Etymology Expeditions: Coolest Name Ever

Paracelsus aka Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.


If I ever have a kid, that's what I'm naming him.

*Husband crosses arms, shakes head.*

No? What about just 'Bombastus' then?

*Husband: facepalm.*

Okay, okay. Jeez.

Well, at least I can explore the names a little.

Paracelsus (1493-1541 was a Reneissance physician, alchemist, botanist, and occultist.  He was known for insisting on using observation of nature in medical practice, instead of just looking at ancient texts, and he was the first to note that some medical conditions have their roots in the mind, and he founded the branch of medicine called toxicology. He also gave zinc its name, zincum. So, pretty cool guy, all around.

The name "Paracelsus" means next to, or beyond, Celsus. (Referring to Roman encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus, who was known for his tract of medicine.) So, basically this name is about bragging rights. He had a reputation for being arrogant. Somehow I don't doubt it:)

Philippus comes from Philippos, meaning fond of horses, from Ancient Greek philéō, I lovehíppos, horse.

Aureolus from Latin, meaning "golden."

 Theophrastus From Latin theos from word-forming element theo "god, gods" and phrazein  "to speak" Speaks to gods?

Bombastus from bombast "cotton padding," from Latin bombax "cotton," a corruption of Latin and Greek Bombyx "silk."  From the 1580s on bombastic also referred to pompous speech, probably because of the meaning of stuffing and padding for upholstery and clothing the word had.

So "bombastic" doesn't come from Paracelsus then...

I think old Bombastus was probably quite bombastic, don't you?

von Hohenheim this is the last name, from hoch "tall, high" heim "home."

Quite a word-picture we're painting here: golden horse-lover who speaks to gods from his high home. (And then disses poor Aulus Celsus across the centuries.)

I still think it's a pretty great name.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of my mind, there is a poor fictional character about to receive a very unfortunate, pompous name.

You might even say bombastic.


Jul 27, 2015

The Anatomy of a Hero

I saw this documentary recently called 10%: What Makes a Hero? It's by Yoav Shamir, and it explores heroes, trying to find a common denominator from genetics to psychology. There are some very stirring images in this. The one that really stuck with me was a black-and-white photo of a Nazi rally, where the crowd is giving the Nazi salute, but if you look closely, there's one man who stands with his hands crossed. I might be imagining it, but I think he looks uncomfortable and a bit defiant. That must have taken guts to do.

The ten percent in the title refers to an old psychology experiment where they took people and split them into students and teachers, or so the teachers thought. The experiment had the "teachers" give electrical shocks to the "students" when they gave the wrong answers. The shocks grew progressively higher, up to life-threathening levels. The students were really actors, and they weren't really getting shocked, but their responses had been pre-recorded. The hypothesis was that most people wouldn't give the shocks when they knew they were hurting another person, even though the guy in the white coat (i.e. authority figure) pressured them to continue. Imagine their surprise when only 10% of people refused. This has been seen as proof that good people can do contemptible things when the environment encourages it. Everybody wants to think that they'd be part of the 10% who refused, but really? The odds are that most of us would have done what The Man said. Shamir postulates that maybe the 10% who refused are the heroes.

He goes on to interview heroes, takes a gene test for a gene that is associated with altruism (turns out 70% of the population has it?!), and interviews psychologist Philip Zimbardo about his study to find out what traits heroes have in common. He is also the scientist who conducted the (in)famous "prisoners and guards" experiment in the seventies.

The interesting thing is that the study actually turned up seven things that the heroes they interviewed had in common:

- attachment to a male parental figure at an early age
- having been through some kind of trauma, working through it, and growing as a person
- some kind of practical realisation or growing up, maturing. (Things like a gang member realising that he wants to get married and have kids, and seeing that his lifestyle stands in the way of that.)
- ideology
- separating oneself from the group
- role models
- being a born leader/rebel

In the interviews of real-life heroes, the thing that separated them from the rest of us was that when the opportunity for helping someone came, they saw a choice, and then chose to help.

I find this fascinating from a writing perspective. We writers know what makes a hero, right? We make them up every day. I started thinking about how this relates to the writing advice on creating characters, heroes in particular.

According to most writing books, to make a hero, you take a likeable character, mix in some personal quirks and flaws, and then add a "ghost" or "wound" (traumatic secret or event), and bring to a boil. Then you send him on the hero's journey. Usually the character is pretty happy with the status quo at the start of the story, then something happens, and he gets reluctantly dragged on a quest of some sort, usually by the mentor, who is often an older male figure. Usually there is some lie the hero believes about himself, and he spends the first half of the story banging his head against the wall, trying to solve his problems the wrong way, because he still believes the lie. At midpoint, he usually realises the truth, and then goes on through tons of conflict to use it to defeat his antagonist/complete his quest. This usually involves great sacrifice and a hard choice between the lie and the truth. The hero changes in some fundamental way during the story, that's important, too.

Sounds kind of familiar, right?

Let's look at that list again:

- attachment to a male parental figure at an early age  -> The mentor?
- having been through some kind of trauma, working through it, and growing as a person -> the ghost or the wound?
- some kind of practical realisation or growing up, maturing. (Things like a gang member realising that he wants to get married and have kids, and seeing that his lifestyle stands in the way of that.) -> The Lie He Believes vs. the Truth?
- ideology -> The Truth?
- separating oneself from the group -> going on a quest?
- role models -> the mentor again, or other characters like the best friend, the love interest etc?
- being a born leader/rebel -> most fictional heroes are, at least the traditional ones.

Heroes also have to make that hard choice at some point. In the documentary, one hero was a Palestinian woman, who tried to commit suicide by a terrorist bombing on an Israeli military checkpoint. She ended up as a peace activist.

That's some change arc right there. I bet she had to make a hard choice to get where she ended up, too.

 So turns out that writers have been using these heroic traits all along.

That's kind of awesome, if you ask me.

Here's to all the heroes, real or fictional. We need more of you in the world.


Jul 24, 2015

Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us

Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us
is a gorgeous book by Paul Koudounaris, who is an author and photographer specialising in the visual culture of death. The book explores ossuaries, burial caves, and mummies, and the ways people around the world revere their dead. Some might find this macabre, but that's not how I felt about the book. As the writer points out in the introduction, the message is more memento vitae, reminder of life.

Seeing different burial customs from around the world also serves to illustrate how narrow the Western idea of death is. Many cultures see it not as a boundary or border, but a metamorphosis. There's an account of a mummy of a little girl discovered in a cave in the Toraja region of Indonesia, and how she was taken in as a part of a local household. Why? Because they sensed it felt lonely and abandoned. Doing that in a Western country would get you a visit to a psychiatric ward.

Here's the mummy girl.

An interesting and thought-provoking read, with beautiful pictures (fyi, this is a coffee-table book, so it's quite picture-heavy.). I heartily recommend this to anyone with an interest in the subject matter.


Jul 23, 2015

SpeckLit: Midsummer Snow

Just a heads-up, I'm on SpeckLit again!

Check it out at:


Jul 22, 2015

Etymology Expressions: That's so Cliché!

Have you ever wondered where some of those clichés and worn phrases come from? Let's check out a few.

Above board, in open sight.  This comes from 1610-20, from having to keep your hands on the table (the board) to discourage cheating at cards.

A basket case, made powerless or inefficient by nerves etc.  This originates from WWI. Back then it meant a soldier who was missing both his arms and legs, and had to be carried around in a basket, according to Wictionary.org.

The bee's knees. The term first emerged in the 18th century, and back then it meant something very small. The modern meaning is from 1920s American slang, meaning an outstanding person or thing. Other examples include the cat's whiskers, the canary's tusks, and my personal favourite, the flea's eyebrows.

Come on, everybody. Let's bring back "the flea's eyebrows." It's a perfectly good phrase, right?

A bone of contention, meaning something disputed. This comes from two dogs fighting over the same bone.

Blow smoke up someone's ass, to give someone insincere compliments. So, apparently in the 1700s doctors actually blew tobacco smoke up people's rectums. Why? To resuscitate people presumed dead, especially drowning victims. I guess it wasn't very successful, because they came up with a plethora of other ailments to treat with this, such as headaches, hernias, respiratory problems, and abdominal cramps. Check out the link: there's a hilarious picture of the equipment they used. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/05/origin-expression-blow-smoke-ass/


Jul 20, 2015

On Expressions and Clichés

When you're learning a foreign language, there's a point when something just clicks; suddenly, you start to understand what you're reading without having to translate every word, or maybe you're sitting in a coffee shop, and all of a sudden you realise you understand what the couple at the next table is arguing about. It's got to be one of the best feelings ever.

That's usually when you can think in that language. Forming sentences doesn't feel like pulling teeth from an angry ogre anymore. 

You start to enjoy yourself. 

When you have the basics down, you get hungry for more: all those delicious idioms and sayings, those quaint turns of phrase. It's not enough that you can communicate adequately; you want to show off. I know what this means, just like the natives! Hey, just watch me use it in a sentence!

This is as good as it gets. You give yourself a mental high five every time you make a joke or use that neat new phrase.

Idiomatic language is the dream; it's what we all want to learn.

Because that's how people talk, right?

Then you find out that none of this applies to writing. 

No, with writing, you need to be original. You can't use those shiny little metaphors you've picked up.; you have to make up your own. You know, something new and different. Not cliché. 

Now you're approaching that ogre again, clicking your pliers. Only now the ogre sees you coming and runs away, throwing boulders the size of houses at you. In a bog. In the middle of a snowstorm. And one of your legs is broken. 

You see where I'm going with this, right?

But there is a way to use those phrases and clichés; just give them a little twist, and they seem fresh again. 

Joss Whedon is a master at this. Here are some of my favourite quotes from Firefly that illustrate the point:

Mal to Jayne: "Well, my time of not taking you seriously is coming to a middle."
Mal: "Ah, the pitter-patter of tiny feet in huge combat boots..."
Mal: "Looks like business ain't runnin' so much as crawlin' away."  

Go on, go watch Firefly or Buffy again. You know you want to. It's for educational purposes this time. (As if you need an excuse!) 

Here's a challenge for you: whenever you come upon a cliché, try to think of a way to make it more interesting. 

So do the twist.

It's fun and good for you.


Jul 18, 2015

Terribleminds Chalenge: Random Phrase

Chuck's back, and so's his weekly flash fiction challenge, yay! This week we got a random phrase to build into our story. I got "illusory needlework." Here's what I came up with:

Family Obligations

I sneaked another glance at the general, and, seeing he was still wide awake, got back to my illusory needlework. Cornelia dozed in the armchair next to me. Good. It had taken me two years to make her acquaintance, then another ten months to become a close friend of the family. I liked Cornelia; she had been nothing but kind, inviting me to her uncle’s box at the opera and to carriage rides with her aunt, never commenting on the color of my skin like the others. She had shared all her darkest secrets with me. I believe she considered me her best friend.
Poor thing.
She shouldn’t be so trusting.

The general coughed, sending ripples pulsating across his voluminous belly, and lit another cigar. “Isobel, my dear, would you mind?” He held out his empty glass to me.
“Not at all, Sir Elbert.”
I set the glass on the side table that housed the general’s supply of whiskey and brandy, both in cut-crystal decanters, and slipped another dollop of sleeping draught in the glass before pouring a generous measure of brandy into it. I had dosed the tea liberally with the tincture, but perhaps it was the general’s respectable girth that kept him from feeling the effects.
I handed him his drink and decided to grab the bull elephant by the tusks.
“I wonder, Sir, if you might show me your cabinet of curiosities again? I should like to examine those artifacts so I can describe them when I write to Mother?”
“Certainly, my dear.” The general heaved himself up. “Oh, darling Cornelia seems to have dozed off. Perhaps I should ring for Hilda?”
“She looks so peaceful. Let us leave her be.” I forced my jaw to relax and my tone to stay light. The old fool would wake half the household staff if he rang, and that didn’t fit into my plans. I laid a hand on his arm and he relented.
“I believe you’re right, my dear.”

We shuffled through the dining room and the library into his study, a masculine room of dark wood and plush burgundy velvet, and stopped in front of a large cabinet, its front a delightful enamel study of oriental harvest scenes. The general, still huffing from the exertion of walking, pulled out a delicate, black iron key and unlocked it. He stood back, undoubtedly examining my features for awe and delight. I gasped, right on cue.
“Oh, Sir Elbert, how wonderful! May I?”
He nodded his permission, beaming like a proud parent, and I picked up this knick-knack or that, asking inane questions or prattling on about the fine craftsmanship of the Peruvian statuette, or the delicate pink hue of the conch shell he had brought back from the West Indies. I was beginning to wonder about the effectiveness of my potion when, finally, the general’s eyelids drooped and he swayed.
“I’m afraid I feel a bit unwell, my dear. I believe I shall take a short rest.”
He got halfway to the armchair before he succumbed, landing on the lush Persian carpet. When his loud, snorting snores grew regular, I placed the little ushabti figure I had been examining back into the drawer I had found it, and reached for my true objective, a withered human skull with gilded teeth.
“Hello, Grandmother,” I said.
About time! the skull answered.

I hurried back towards my room, trying to ignore the running diatribe of admonishments Grandmother kept up.
What on earth are you wearing, child? And what have you done to your hair? Oh, how you stride, my dear, you were such a graceful child, like a dancer, what happened? Who will want to marry such an unfeminine figure, I’m sure I don’t know . . .
On and on it went, to the point I almost regretted freeing her.  Indeed, she drew my attention from the task at hand so thoroughly that I almost ran straight into Hilda’s arms. As it was, I only had time to shove the skull under my dress (Where are your bloomers, my dear? These smallclothes are simply scandalous!) before she rounded the corner.
Hilda curtsied. “Good evenin’, miss.”
“Good evening.”
She looked at me curiously.
“You’re looking a bit flushed, miss, if you pardon me for sayin’. Are you feelin’ quite well?”
“Oh, yes. It must be the brandy. I’d best go lie down, I think.” I was having a hard time keeping the skull from slipping out from between my sweaty knees.
“Good night, then, miss.”
“Good night, Hilda.”

With a sigh of relief, I slipped into my room and pulled on the clothes of a young gentleman, pinning my hair up under the hat, and then stuffed Grandma into the large doctor’s bag I had purloined from the surgeon next door. What are you doing, child? Just wait till I tell your father!
There wasn’t much time. Hilda could discover Cornelia at any moment, and I’d need to make my escape before that. I sneaked down the servants’ staircase on the north side of the house, not encountering anyone, to my relief. When I slipped into the hallway leading outside, I surprised the housekeeper and the chauffer in the middle of an amorous encounter. (Well! said Grandma in a scandalized tone.) We stared at one other for a long moment, and then the woman screamed. I ran, toppling an army of buckets and brooms as I went. I heard the chauffer trip and curse behind me as I slammed the door shut.
I didn’t stop running before we were in the cover of the woods, where I slumped down on a fallen tree trunk, panting, and watched the house light up as if for a dance party behind me. Come, child, we have a ship to catch. You’ll like the old country, I’m certain of it, Grandma said conversationally. 
I would like the old country.
 I got up and we melted into the night.  



Jul 17, 2015

Going Nautical

After I visited the Pommern, I started writing a short story about The Flying Dutchman. It ended up being sci-fi, but fun nonetheless. Now I'm plotting a horror story set on an 1800s sailing ship. I'm thinking something . . .  Lovecraftian.

To set the mood, here's an excerpt from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner courtesy of the Poetry foundation:

The Sun's rim dips; the stars rush out;
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper, o'er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.

We listened and looked sideways up!
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip!
The stars were dim, and thick the night,
The steersman's face by his lamp gleamed white;
From the sails the dew did drip—
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The hornèd Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.

One after one, by the star-dogged Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.

I'm off to have a nice and creepy weekend.

Source: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173253

Jul 15, 2015

Etymology Expeditions: Dark and Stormy

I'm feeling nautical this week, so let's explore words related to the four winds and storms:

Tempest, from Old French tempeste (Frenchtempête), from Latin tempestas (storm), from tempus (time, weather”), is apparently a storm with severe winds. 

Hurricane, from Spanish huracán, ultimately from the name of the Taino storm god Juracán whom the Taínos believed dwelled on El Yunque mountain and, when he was upset, sent the strong winds and rain upon them. This one is pretty cool!

Cyclonefrom Ancient Greek, from either κύκλος (kúkloscircle, wheel) or κυκλόω (kuklóōgo around in a circle, form a circle, encircle). This means a system off winds rotating around a low pressure system.

Typhoon probably ultimately of Sinitic origin, Mandarin 大风 (dàfēngbig wind), Cantonese 大風 (daai6 fung1big wind), via Arabic طوفان (ṭūfān), Hindi तूफ़ान (tūfān), and Persian توفان (tufân). Ancient Greek Τυφῶν (TuphônTyphon, father of the winds) is unrelated but has secondarily contaminated the word. 
Ha, "big wind"! I love it! But seriously, I'd have sworn this was Greek in origin. Fascinating. 

What about the four winds, then? They apparently go back to ancient Greece mythology and the Anemoi (greek for winds). The four main ones were:

 Boreas (Septentrio from septum triones=seven oxen, the stars in Ursa Major in Latin) was the north wind and bringer of cold winter air. His name meant "North Wind" or "devouring one," and he was often depicted as a winged old man with shaggy hair, holding a conch shell and wearing a billowing cloak. The Greeks believed that his home was in Thrace, and Herodotus and Pliny both describe a northern land known as Hyperborea "Beyond the North Wind" where people lived to an old age in complete happiness.  

According to Wikipedia, the etymology of Boreas in uncertain: theories include "boros", an old variant of "oros" (Greek for "mountains", which were to the north geographically), or "boros" meaning "voracious". There's also a  phrase ἀπὸ τῆς βoῆς ("from the roar"), that could refer to its violent and loud noise

Zephyrus meaning from the west (zóphosdarkness, west)(Favonius, "favourable" in Latin) was the west wind, the messenger of spring, and the gentlest of the winds.He wa said to be the husband of Iris, the goddess of the rainbow. He apparently also had a love triangle with Boreas and a goddess called Chloris, and also a good-looking, athletic Spartan prince named Hyacinth and the god Apollo. When Apollo won, Zephyrus caused the boy's seat by a falling discus, and Apollo created the hyacinth flower from his blood. Gotta love those Greeks, right?

Notos "notios" "moist", a reference to the warm rains and storms brought from the south (Auster, from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ews- (east)) was the south wind and bringer of late summer storms.

Eurus  from brightness Eos was the goddess of dawn, perhaps the same root (Subsolanus in Latin, something about under the sun, maybe? I couldn't find an exact etymology for this.), the east wind, was thought to bring warmth and rain, and his symbol was an inverted vase, spilling water.


Jul 13, 2015

Archipelacon: Part 2

This post is less about Archipelacon and more about Mariehamn. It's a beautiful city with lots to see.
Here's a peacock from Lilla Holmen, a small island where you can go see bunnies, parrots, and chickens, in addition to the peacocks. (Did you know peacocks can fly, btw? I didn't, and then three of these did.)

Peacock posing.

I liked this sign. Mariehamn is a seaport, so that explains why it's in nautical miles.

This is the Pommern, a four-masted barque that was built in 1903 in Glasgow. She used to carry grain (among other things) from Australia to England until the second world war. After that she was donated to the town of Mariehamn as a museum ship.  (You can read more here)
Did you know that when a storm hit the sailors would climb up the rigging every time a wave washed over the deck, and then make their way forward between waves? Pretty scary!

I wouldn't mind having dinner with the captain in here.

Here's a few newspapers I picked up at the con. They make cool props for photographs.

A final cosplay pic:) Here I am, steampunked up.