The Somnium

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Johannes Kepler, in a portrait from 1610. Artist unknown. From Wikimedia Commons.

Returning today to some research that I was doing in 2012!

Fun fact of the day:

Johannes Kepler wrote one of the first science fiction books, the famous “Somnium” (“The Dream”), over the course of several revisions between 1610 and 1630. The book was an amazing fusion of scientific speculation with conventional horror tropes, a voyage to the moon via demonic conveyance.

First circulated in 1611, it was later used as evidence against his mother, when she was subjected to an extended and savage persecution for witchcraft in 1620. Her trial lasted for over a year, and Kepler mounted an extensive legal defense to save her from torture and death.

When she was finally acquitted, Kepler composed 223 footnotes to the story—several times longer than the actual text—which explained the allegorical aspects as well as the considerable scientific content (particularly regarding lunar geography) hidden within the Somnium.

To learn much more about the Somnium, the life and times of Johannes Kepler, and about Kepler’s important contributions to science, I recommend a visit to the Somnium Project.

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The Shadow Orchestra

wygukur_semar

Semar,one of the most beloved of all the characters of Javanese wayang kulit plays. This particular puppet image was attached to a post by the University of Pekalongan.

In honor of the new Puppetland book released in .pdf format from Arc Dream Publishing, I’m writing a bit about the research into historical and contemporary puppetry that I did to generate the characters, conflicts and settings I contributed to the game.

There are four Shadow Puppet characters in my  “Pretty Polly” scenario, the friends and chosen family of the eponymous heroine. I chose to make them real traditional shadow puppets from Java, partially renamed to conform to the surreal creepy-humorous naming conventions of Puppetland.

I gave them the role of itinerant musicians, traveling as a family to entertain the masses and provide musical accompaniment to Pretty Polly’s magical performances as a dancer.

“Semar, Rama, Sindi and Simba are traditional-style shadow puppets from Java, depicting forms from the Wayang kulit tradition. They are beautifully cut from leather and decorated with paint, lacquer and buffalo horn. Although their construction makes them stronger, larger and more durable than paper Shadow Puppets, they lack many of the traditional strengths of the Shadow Puppet form, in particular the ability to become fully invisible.”

Semar, depicted very well above, is one of the most famous characters in Javanese literature. He is the father and leader of the Punakawan, the sacred clown servants of the epic stories that are performed on the island, and in many ways he is the guardian spirit of Java itself; demonic entities flee before him, and he is the voice of sanity in a sea of conflict.

A leather wayang shadow-pupet from Indonesia--likely depicting the great hero Rama, from the epic Ramayana.

A leather wayang shadow-pupet from Indonesia–likely depicting the great hero Rama, from the epic Ramayana.

Rama, who in my scenario appears as a dashing troubadour adventurer, is derived from the figure of the great prince of the epic Ramayana. Since Rama in his own story is a faithful husband and a rescuer of women in distress, I thought Pretty Polly would benefit from his protection.

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A beautifully painted leather puppet of Sita, the wife of Rama.

The female characters of the Shadow Orchestra are derived from the Ramayana and other Indonesian epics.

Sindi is an elderly, motherly figure, perhaps an older version of a lady like Sita, the wife of Rama, or of Kunthi, the mother of the Punkawan clowns.

Kunthi

Kunthi, the mother of the Punkawan. The model of the ideal mother, her sons are always perfectly obedient.

The younger female character Simba, however, has much more in common with the fierce female warrior of Java’s puppet theater, the unstoppable Srikandi.

Dewi Srikandi: is the exact opposite of the refined, humble female who lives in the shadow of her husband. Srikandi is “talkative, strong willed, warm-hearted, fond of hunting, an excellent archer, she isquite ready to debate with [her husband] Ardjunå or take on a passing satryå in battle. She enjoys travelling about Java, either in search of her periodically missing husband or seeking adventures of her own . . . For the Javanese, Srikandi is the honored type of the active, energetic, disputatious, generous, go-getting woman” (Anderson 2009: 36).

 

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There are many links on the web to learn more about Javanese shadow puppets, as well as several books on the subject. One of the resources I found most useful was a simple .pdf entitled Shadow Puppet Templates, which appears to course material from the University of Michigan.

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Pretty Polly

Czech-Marionettes-_pretty-polly

Lady Dorotka Marionette is a Czech-made puppet who would make a very nice Pretty Polly, http://www.czechmarionettes.com/en/detail/390-Lady-Dorotka-Marionette

Since the new Puppetland book has been released in .pdf format from Arc Dream Publishing, I thought I would write a bit about the three scenarios that I’ve written for the project, particularly about the research I did into historical and contemporary puppetry, to generate my characters, conflicts and settings for the game.

The first scenario I wrote for Puppetland was “Pretty Polly”, which was inspired by one of the frequently-occurring characters from Punch and Judy shows prior to the 20th century. Pretty Polly was always a dancer, and usually depicted as the mistress or lover of Punch. Here’s the description of a typical Pretty Polly appearance from a Punch script dated 1832:

SCENE IV

ENTER PRETTY POLLY.

Punch. [Seeing her, and singing out of “The Beggar’s Opera” while she dances,] When the heart of a man is oppress’d with cares, The clouds are dispelled when a woman appears, &c.

Punch. [Aside.] What a beauty! What a pretty creature! [Extending his arms, and then clasping his hands in admiration. She continues to dance, and dances round him, while he surveys her in silent delight. He then begins to sing a slow tune and foots it with her; and, as the music quickens, they jig it backwards and forwards, and sideways, to all parts of the stage. At last, Punch catches the lady in his arms and kisses her most audibly, while she appears “nothing loth.” After waltzing, they dance to the tune of “The White Cockade,” and Punch sings as follows:]

I love you so, I love you so,
I never will leave you; no, no, no:
If I had all the wives of wise King Sol,
I would kill them all for my Pretty Poll.

[Exeunt dancing.

My own take on the character and her relationship to Mister Punch is based on three observations:

#1. That Pretty Polly is very much the patriarchal ideal of the perfect woman.

      Beautiful, sexually available without any economic or social strings attached (no marriage and no payment), and absolutely incapable of communicating or expressing her own needs–she never has any lines, and most Pretty Polly puppets don’t have a functioning mouth at all.
pretty-polly

A real Pretty Polly puppet featured in a BBC article and slideshow on the old Punch and Judy puppet shows.: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9692000/9692233.stm

 

#2. That the story of Pretty Polly may actually pre-date the use of the character in Punch and Judy shows. The folksong “Pretty Polly” is actually a murder ballad about a young woman who falls for the wrong man.

The earliest known version on record is a folio of the lyrics from 1760, when it was called “The Gosport Tragedy”, but the origins of the song doubtless date further back in time.

The song has never lost its power, and variants of the story continue to be sung to the present day. Most of them skip the first few lines, however, which were the ones that struck me the hardest:

Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, would you take me unkind
Polly, Pretty Polly, would you take me unkind
Let me set beside you and tell you my mind

Well my mind is to marry and never to part
My mind is to marry and never to part
The first time I saw you it wounded my heart…

#3. That the Punch of Puppetland and the murderer of the original song had a lot in common. Specifically, I thought that the image of Pretty Polly in both the song and the old Punch plays had a lot to say about the origins of violence against women in general. Patriarchy breeds a dark spirit of narcissism in men, and trains them from early childhood with the expectation that women will be quiet, pretty, and available on demand. Women who stray from this ideal of silent sex dolls are subject to violence, and often death: when these expectations are subverted, the resulting rage can be homicidal.

The character of Pretty Polly in the scenario I’ve written is a survivor. The scenario is my comment on the issues of “stolen hearts” and marital infidelity, the ways that female victims of assault are silenced, and how powerful and precious our joy in living and our art can be as tools of survival.

The character of Pretty Polly echoes throughout time. She is the eternal victim of the world’s violence toward women–whether anyone can save her is the eternal question.

 

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Puppetland Is Here!

Puppetland

Excitement! The digital version of Arc Dream Publishing’s new edition of the Puppetland RPG is here, featuring three brand-new scenarios by yours truly!

You can download the .pdf of the core rule book and scenarios here, at RPGnow. It’s a fantastic little game, and a wonderful exercise in game design. Anyone who is interested in table-top story-telling should definitely try it.

The hardcover version of the book should be going to press soon, which is also exciting. In honor of the release of Puppetland, I’ll be posting some puppet profiles to showcase the historical puppets and figures that provided inspiration for the scenarios I contributed to this book: Pretty Polly, The Box, and The Bottler.

 

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Father’s Day Memorial: Morris Dembo, Revisited

Arinn-and-Morris-Dembo-1974

 

On Father’s Day in 2013, I wrote a memorial for my grandfather Morris Dembo, accompanied by a scan of the photo above. At the time, I was simply trying to write down as much as I knew and remembered about my grandfather. I guessed that the photo above was taken in 1976, for example, perhaps at the Bicentennial–because I couldn’t remember.

As you can see in the new composite above, I was mistaken. I am four years old in the photo, and that must be Manhattan. If the picture was taken by Rose, that would be my Aunt Rose.

In the three years since that time, a surprising number of people have come forward to offer more information about my grandfather. An estranged family member contacted me out of the blue with a cache of wonderful photographs and old recipes from my paternal Grandmother, Doris Dembo, as well as some jewelry she had collected over the years–I was asked to pass those treasures on to my own daughters, if possible, but I’ll also be sharing some of this information on my blog, including the corrected detail on the photo above.

If my experience of writing about my grandfather has taught me anything, it’s that I could not see the whole picture from where I was sitting. And honestly, I may never see the whole picture from where I sit. But as more and more people started to come forward, I realized that my grandfather’s true nature was hidden in more ways than one. It wasn’t just his doting granddaughter who could not see his true face.

Morris Dembo 9 20 65 composite

The first person who contacted me was a distant cousin. He’d received a letter from my grandfather from Nairobi in the autumn of 1965. He kindly scanned it and sent it to me as an email attachment. I’ve pasted the full text together as one image above.

The blue paper and the blue ink, the cursive written with a fountain pen, is iconic of Morris Dembo’s correspondence. In my teens he gave me a series of fountain pens to use for personal writing, and I filled journal after journal with my own slanting cursive, which he told me was very beautiful. Those notebooks are gone now; in my early 30’s I dug out almost all of those old journals, as well as anything I’d hand-written in the previous ten years, and burned them. I haven’t missed the chance to leaf through my teenage thoughts, ideas, and troubles, but I do feel a pang when I think about the ink–my grandfather’s ink.

He was always writing these single-page letters, using stationery which folded to form its own envelope. This quirk actually may have served him well, in that it made it impossible for him to say too much or spend too long on any given letter, and kept his network of correspondence broad rather than allowing any one person to preoccupy him. I imagine  it’s the same reason that many people today prefer Twitter, with its draconian character limit, to the limitless time sink that Facebook can become…

Morris-Dembo-at-his-desk

Morris Dembo at his writing desk, wearing a pin-striped suit                                                                               date, photographer and location unknown

 

My grandfather loved writing by hand, and the fact that I had good handwriting always pleased him. In later years I would hear that he was always disappointed with my father’s penmanship, and tyrannized him over it more than once.

In the 1950’s, of course, no one had ever heard of dyslexia or any other issue that might affect someone’s handwriting–it was assumed that if someone wasn’t writing perfectly neat whorls of school marm cursive, it could only be because they weren’t trying hard enough! And if you were a school master in a colonial school in Africa or India, the way to get a Jewish boy to learn his letters properly was by beating him like the star of a Pink Floyd musical.

I don’t really have to imagine how my father learned his aptitude for violence. He shared that information with me when I was a child. He always viewed the male teachers at the colonial schools as rejects, men sent away from home because they were too brutal and sadistic to serve domestically in Britain.

He described the way one teacher would bring down the long ruler upon the hands and wrists of his victims while they sat trapped in their desks. How another would cup a boy’s face in one hand almost tenderly, and say “Nice little boy,” before he delivered a staggering slap with his free hand.

I didn’t know what to do with this information when he shared it with me, and I’m not sure what to say about it now. It sits like shrapnel under my skin.

Morris-Dembo-and-Pete-Piette

Morris Dembo and his friend Pete Piette, who had worked with him in the US Foreign Service.          Date and location, photographer unknown

Beyond the relatives who wrote to me about my grandfather, however, there were people who had been touched by his friendship and scholarship. One of them was a gentleman from India, whose name I will not publish without permission. He wrote to me last year to share his odd relationship with my grandfather, whom he had never met in person face-to-face.

I first heard of your grandfather in the late Sixties in Delhi, where I grew up and went to college. We lived in the area called Old Delhi and the Jama Masjid (mosque) was about 2 km from our home. This part of town was built about 350 years ago. Our friends who lived in that area told of this man called Morris Dembo who dressed informally, hung out in that area and spent time in Urdu bookshops. He was also suspected of being a CIA agent in those xenophobic days. I think he was fascinated by the ambiance of that area and was seriously interested in Urdu language. Later on he co-translated (with Hafeez Malik) a book from Urdu into English. The publisher of this book is still located in the Jama Masjid area.
I arrived in Philadelphia on 1 October, 1969 to pursue graduate studies at Drexel U. For the first two years I lived on Baltimore Avenue and 47th Street. Around August 1971, a group of us Indian graduate students rented a house on Spruce Street.  I was very pleasantly surprised to find the many books in that house. I read widely and many of these books were of interest to me. I discovered Morris‘s name on some of these books. I don’t remember seeing any art objects in the house but there were quite a few books. I lived in that house till January 1972 when I moved to Newark NJ. While there I did wish that this Morris Dembo would turn up at the house and I would say to him “Mr Dembo I know of you from Delhi.”
Recently I have been reading a book called Strains in a Minor Key: Celebrating Sixty Years in Calcutta by Rani Sircar. Kolkata, Gangchil, 2013. Her son, Sanjay who also lives in Canberra, Australia gave me this book to read. On page 356 who pops up but our friend Morris Dembo. In the following pages Rani Sircar writes affectionately of their friendship with Morris and the various courtesies Morris extended to the Sircar family. She also mentions a Dembo granddaughter who writes Science Fiction, I guess that would be with you. I have attached pdfs of these pages. Sanjay also remembers him vividly.
I found your moving Father’s Day tribute to him and the beautiful photograph. We would also have sat on the same stairs enjoying a glass of beer on a warm Philadephia autumn day.
I never did meet him but our lives did cross paths. I can imagine him – a man of Polish Jewish descent (with all the attendant baggage), a cultured man interested in and curious about the world around him, a man trying to find out why there is (and has been) so much conflict in this world. I think he and I would have got on quite well.
Warm regards,
Name Redacted
Canberra, Australia

 

This note from Australia gave me a bit of a chill, I must admit. The book this man mentioned was written by a woman from India. It is completely personal, a journal of loss and recovery. In it, she describes her sense of grief and loss when her last few deeply personal letters to my grandfather, grieving the loss of her husband of 45 years, were never answered by a man who no longer knew her.

What troubled me was not the notion of the letter from a man who no longer remembers, though–I have experienced that first hand myself, and it is a familiar pain to think about it. No, what made the hairs stand up on my back was that mention of the CIA.

I think the first time it occurred to me that my grandfather might have been a CIA case officer was when I was in my teens. My grandfather was in a rare sharing mood, and was telling me about his father’s candy store in Brooklyn. He proudly remembered stocking all the newspapers and magazines daily, and reading as many of them as he could.

“I did it every day of my life,” he said. “Until the day I went into the Army.”

I was floored. It made perfect sense, of course–he was the right age, he was healthy and unmarried, of COURSE he would have been in the ranks somehow during World War II. But he had never spoken of it before, even in passing. There was no memorabilia, there were no stories oft-told, it was not a thing that was even hinted at during family discussions.

It was like a window suddenly opening in what I had assumed was a blank wall. I found myself wondering how anyone could be so close-mouthed about his involvement in such a huge historical and political event. And I found myself thinking about his amazing gift for languages, his ability to pick them up so easily that he could easily be a diplomat in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. I thought about his personal habits, the way he wouldn’t form regular patterns–never walking the same way twice in a row to the post office.

I may have also asked myself why he had this tremendous huge and luxurious house in Philadelphia, and a second house in the wealthy Washington. DC suburb of Arlington, Virginia. Was it normal to own so much property after having been a minor functionary in the US Foreign Service…especially when you started off as a kid from Brooklyn, listed as a stock clerk on your draft notice because your job was filling up the magazine display at your father’s candy store?

Morris-Dembo-with-Pete-and-Margaret-Piette-for-web

Morris Dembo with Pete and Margaret Piette. Date, location, photographer presently unknown

At the time, I know I put the idea that my grandfather might have been a spy aside, and did not think of it again until many years later. While I was researching a story set in Laos during the Vietnam War, I read a few books about the CIA and how it structured its operations world wide. I felt another chill when I read that it was fairly common to place a CIA case officer among the staff at a US embassy, and that one of the most common jobs was passport officer.

A passport officer has people of all kinds constantly flowing in and out of his office all day, to handle a variety of visa issues. The sheer volume of traffic makes it difficult to spot which people are actually assets, because following everyone who comes and goes to his office is a huge commitment of time and resources.

As I read those words, I remembered my grandfather mentioning that he had worked in the passport office, in Africa. It came up in the context of how lost Americans could become when they were trapped in a foreign country. He had been particularly saddened by the desperation of African-Americans who found themselves unmoored in Africa, struggling to get back to a country which treated them as second-class citizens…

I began thinking about my grandfather’s friends from the foreign service, Pete Piette and his wife Margaret. My grandfather took me more than once to their cabin on the shore of Lake Winnisquam in New Hampshire, and the days I spent swimming, rowing and canoeing there are some of my happiest memories.

I remembered that Pete and Margaret were still very actively involved in bringing in foreign exchange students from abroad. I remembered the amazing slide shows of Margaret’s lifetime of landscape and ethnographic photography, which absolutely fascinated me. I was always nagging Margaret to get those photos published, but to my knowledge she never did–which means that the archive of those photos, if her children managed to preserve them, still lurks somewhere in New Hampshire waiting to be unleashed.

Sifting through all those memories, though, I found that there were many questions I actually couldn’t answer. Like….WHAT THE HELL were they doing, back in the Good Old Days when they were working abroad? What exactly had Pete’s job been? What was my grandfather’s job? What was the work?

What did they actually…do?

The idea that my grandfather Dembo may have been with the CIA was actually not that implausible, once I looked into it. He was actually deliberately outed at least twice as a spy, the first time in 1968, in a publication from the Stasi of East Germany, a 605-page tome that was literally called Who’s Who In the CIA”.

He was mentioned again in a second publication from the same source in 1988, a much smaller book called CIA-Operation Hindu Kush.

In August of 1961, his name appears in a memorandum to the Director of Intelligence, an annual report of the National Intelligence Survey. Morris Dembo was to receive a commendation for an outstanding contribution to the program. He is listed under the heading “Department of State – Office of Research and Analysis, Mid-East”.

He’s also mentioned in a book called  Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935-1961. In August of 1951, my grandfather is the Embassy official who met with middle-class black Africans to listen to their views on the political unrest of the region.

The text of my grandfather’s original report is available on-line–you can find it here.

I don’t know how to summarize all this information, what final conclusion to draw. Does it really matter that my grandfather may have been a spy? Would it make me love him less, cherish my memories of him less? Would I think less of him, or his elderly chums, if I knew that they’d spent their careers trying to engineer the downfall of communism?

No. I’m in my 40’s now, and I’ve spent a lifetime loving problematic people and art. I can live with this idea.

But I will admit that the idea confuses and causes me a pang.

It is hard to love someone so much, and realize years later how little you really knew him.

Happy Father’s Day, Grampa. I miss you.

 

 

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Indie Meals – Wolf Mother Stew

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I worked out this recipe a two years ago, during an indie summer in Vancouver. All game development jobs seem to involve some lapses of self-care, and it’s pretty common to see game devs in any segment of the industry live on caffeine and pizza for days or weeks on end when crunching on a game.

Indie devs have some additional challenges, though, because they often have to work within tight budgets AND also take decent care of themselves. When my team went fully independent in 2012, I started putting some thought into the indie dev lifestyle and how I could make it work for myself and my family.

One of my strategies was to concoct a series of recipes I called “Indie Meals”–because they were cheap, filling and nutritious, and made quantities that last a week or so with daily small servings or re-heatings, thus making them optimal for indie game developers and their housemates or families.

This one is called Wolf Mother Stew.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups of red split lentils
  • 1/2 cup+ olive oil
  • 1 large sweet onion, diced
  • 1/3 cup garlic, minced
  • Leftover Fridge Veggies: (in this case, 2 green and/or yellow zucchini, diced and One red and one yellow pepper, diced–but carrots, eggplant, potatoes, turnips, parsnips and all sorts of other veggies might have worked)
  • Spices: Sea Salt, Cracked Pepper, 1-3 Bay Leaves, Fresh or Dry Thyme, LOTS of cumin and curry powder.
  • Optional: Meat on a Bone. In this case, 1 pound of cheap Australian lamb shoulder chops, but some other meat on a bone probably would have worked–ox tail, neck, etc. If you use some sort of bird, though, probably should remove the skin.

Sauté everything to give it a bit of browned flavor.

Add 14 cups of water.

If you can afford it, you can also:

 Sauté and add your meat and pop it into the stew.

Reduce the heat almost immediately from high to medium and then low, as the lentils soften.

Two hours later, pull the meat out, cut all the meat off the bones and into bite sized chunks, throw out all the bones and gristle, and pop the meat back into the stew.

Cook on low heat another half hour, then serve with a stone-ground wheat pita.

Cost of ingredients: less than 11 dollars. Keeps well: flavors will improve over the course of the next few days, in fact. Makes many meals. Can be frozen.

When re-heated in a pot, the Greek way of seasoning it at the table might include a dash of malt vinegar and more olive oil and salt or pepper to taste on top.

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Saying “Yes” in Science Fiction

Gizmodo published an article today called The Physics of Space Battles, by Joseph Shoer. I shared it on my social media accounts because I actually found it fun and enjoyable to read, unlike the vast majority of material written about this topic by people who hold a degree in physics or aerospace engineering.

It occurred to me as I posted it and as friends of mine who also write in this field posted on it to wonder WHY I actually enjoyed Shoer’s take on the physics of space battles, when I normally find most writing on the topic from degree-holding physicists really odious and avoid it like the plague.

And the answer was simple: Joseph Shoer is saying yes.

The vast majority of Shoer’s essay has a positive tone. He is talking about exactly what he wants to talk about–near-future or present-day speculative fictions based on the technology that is either currently available, or easily foreseeable. He is not interested in far future projection or speculating on drive systems which would operate on currently unknown principles of physics–no FTL, no anti-grav, no teleportation or travel through time.

In confining the scope of the conversation he wants to have, he is of course throwing out about 90% of the conceptual playground of SF–time travel and FTL are staples in a lot of SF, not just joyously goofy space opera. But he doesn’t adopt a vicious tone while doing so, and he doesn’t feel the need to kick things that other people enjoy or find meaningful.

What occurred to me as I read his essay, and found myself enjoying it so much more than usual, is that SF stories and critiques are very much like improvisation in comedy, theater, or brainstorming. When you’re asking people to open up, loosen up, engage  the creative mind, you’ve got to learn to say yes.

When two improv comedians are trying to riff together on stage, they are both working from a What If, and then continuously proposing ideas, which they then proceed to blurt out as verbal premises or gambits. “What if I mistook the alien coming to abduct me for the Pizza Delivery Guy?” might be the core question, but the actor playing the alien can start the scene in any of a number of ways.

In Improv, the response that you need to have to your partner is “Yes, and–” followed by running with the premise or throwing in your own crazy thoughts. If you shut down your partner’s creative flow by rejecting their overtures, you’re going to kill the scene. People will withdraw, and lose their sense of play–the willingness to suspend their judgments and disbelief and romp with you.

People discussing science and physics in science fiction far too often come at it from the perspective of “NO! AND FURTHERMORE–!”, after which they proceed to berate the audience about how stupid they are for ever indulging in fun thoughts or childish fancies.

And yeah. I have a predictable response to that, as do most people: I shut down and lose interest. I am no longer interested in playing with you, or talking about science with you–I love science, but I find that negative tone such a turn-off that I’m not interested in sticking around for the lecture.

Whatever you want to talk about it–even if it’s gritty near-future hyper-realistic hard SF–stay positive. Ignore everything that is wrong with how other people do things, and get excited about the topics that really interest you. Make it fun.

Give the audience a chance to say “Yes, and–!” to you.

 

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Roman Nanotechnology

lycurgus-cup

Stumbled onto a very nice piece on the Smithsonian website today about the Lycurgus Cup, a famous artifact currently held by the British Museum. The cup is believed to have been manufactured in Late Antiquity, around the 4th century, by a highly accomplished craftsman working in dichroic glass.

The cup has properties that appear almost magical to the untrained eye, with a distinctly green color when viewed normally, and a brilliant red color when backlit. Analysis of the artifact reveals an early use of “nanotechnology”: the ancient craftsmen incorporated very tiny particles of gold and silver into the glass to achieve this effect.

As with many great artifacts from Late Antiquity, this one has a very dodgy provenance–it turns up around 1800, and is believed to have been looted from a Church treasury during the French Revolution and its attendant wars. It may have been hoarded and stored continuously above ground since it was made, or it may have been looted at some point from a sarcophagus–impossible to say.

What I can say is that Roman glassworking, particularly some of the mixed material glassworking of Late Antiquity, is a subject I find endlessly fascinating. I have been very interested in it since I saw the gold glass samples excavated from the Roman catacombs of the period.

 

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The Womanly Art of the Sword

kalari meenakshi main

 

Great article on a website called News Minute about a woman named Meenakshi Gurrukkal, who lives in the Kerala, an Indian state at the southern tip of the subcontinent. This 74-year-old woman is a martial artist, a practitioner of the art called Kalaripayattu–“the school of the battlefield”.

I love information-rich interviews like this one, because they are such lush sources for fiction ideas, particularly for characters and plots.

“Oral folklore in north Kerala, known as Vadakkan Pattu or Northern Ballads, is rich with tales of Kalaripayattu champions. Among them are the Thiyya/Ezhava warriors of Puthooram tharavad in North Malabar- heroes and heroines such as Aromal Chekavar, an expert in ‘ankam’ (duelling) and Unniarcha, a woman skilled in ‘urumi’ combat who single-handedly took on vagabonds to ensure safe passage for women in that area. Ironically, Raghavan Master, from the same Thiyya/Ezhava community, had to fight discrimination in the late 1940s and set up a separate kalari to train and teach.”

I think these articles also shed light, although somewhat obliquely, on the way that conquest can lead to erasure of women from the martial history of the planet. When colonial rulers seize a territory, they tend to discourage any martial traditions of the conquered people, especially if those traditions tend to run counter to their own beliefs and prejudices about male and female bodies and personalities.

“Later, colonial rulers were quick to ensure that locals did not pose a threat to them, and strongly discouraged Kalaripayattu. Their prudish sensibilities also prevented women from learning such skills. Prof Menon noted that after the 17 th century, interest in Kalaripayattu declined.

Restrictions on carrying arms ensured that most Kalaripayattu weapons were kept in cold storage.

Kalaripayattu was revived in the 1920s, but practitioners had to ask authorities for special licences to use weapons…”

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Damian Nenow

 

In the course of daily life on-line today I found “Paths of Hate”, an animated short film by Damian Nenow. Nenow is a Polish creator who works for the Platige Image company in Warsaw, a large studio which produces graphics, 3D art and digital special effects. According the info page on this particular film, “Paths of Hate” (2010) was short-listed for an Academy Award nomination, received a Special Distinction at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, and was honored at Comic-Con. It also received the Best of Show award at the 2011 SIGGRAPH festival.

I think overall that it’s an amazing work of art, although I have to admit that I really hated the pop music inserted at the end of it. It distracted me from the animation at the worst moment, when the point of the imagery was at its most lucid, and the director was making his final point about the nature of hatred, and the nature of hell.

This serious and thoughtful bent to Nenow’s work and his powerful, spiritually charged images appear even in a 30 second short, like this brief ad spot, “Hunger is a Tyrant”.

 

And the same commitment to serious subject matter and political issues looks to be followed up in his first feature film, “Another Day of Life”, based on the book by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. I’m actually very grateful to have stumbled across Ryszard Kapuściński’s books this way, many of which have been translated into English. They look absolutely amazing, and I think this film is going to be amazing too….although obviously it won’t be light viewing.

Like many animators, Damian Nenow also has a lighter side, however. One of his early efforts in 3D, “The Great Escape”, is probably just the palate cleanser you need to get back to your day.

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