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Human rights -- one of the societal evils?

I got an interesting discussion going on a couple of my private social media channels about this church sign in Austin, Texas. So I thought it warrants a public blog post, summarizing various people's opinions. Apologies to those who have seen this discussion before. This is the last time I'm posting about it.

Human rights, narcissism, infidelity, materialism, prejudice, hypocricy

When I first saw this sign, my first thought was: are they kidding? Human rights, narcissism, infidelity, materialism, prejudice, hypocricy all grouped together? am I to understand that human rights are a vice on par with with narcissism, infidelity, etc.? What kind of church would be against human rights? Perhaps in their doctrine, humans have no rights except those given by God. So an attempt of humans to establish their own rights is one of the evils of secularism. (I'm really stretching my imagination here.) The church website (www.cccaustin.com) does not make it clearer.

The speculation in my social media streams converged around three possibilities:

(1) it's an unintentionally awkward phrasing, possibly because of a formatting limitation. They couldn't fit "human rights violations" on the sign (not without messing up visually), so they put "human rights", because the phrase "human rights" it is followed by "violations"; thus "violations" can be dropped.

(2) it's a form of trolling... erm, ingenious marketing. Whetting people's appetite by an intentionally cryptic or contradictory statement. Maybe they'll be curious enough to come to the church to find out what it's all about.

(3) this church really counts human rights among the evils of secularism. About half of the people who commented on this photo thought so.

"I couldn't tell if they're for Human Rights or against them, but since they're against the other topics I'm assuming they're against Human Rights too."

"'Human rights' originated after WWII and were defined by a multi-national commission. So Human Rights are an innovation and not given by God in the Bible, therefore they're evil. It doesn't matter that by and large they're corollaries of the "Love your neighbors as yourselves" commandment."

"This page on the church website, You have a part to play, seems to make the point even more strongly. On its web page (which, unlike a sign, does not have formatting limitations), they list all six "issues", including human rights, and says 'In addition, we we will be sponsoring a unique "small group challenge": our small groups will have the opportunity to craft a personal and creative response to these issues, competing for a $250 prize per issue [...]'."

It's probably not (1), because awkward phrasing in a sign could easily be clarified on the website. It may also be (2) and (3) combined. One friend said, "this is a deliberate attempt to confuse people and attract attention, and not a simple failure of parallel rhetorical construction."

Career outfits for 6-year-olds?

My daughter's elementary school teacher announced an upcoming "Dress for Success" day at school: students will need to dress up in career outfits or as if they are going for an interview. Apparently I'm supposed to buy my first-grader an interview suit. Because you know, such things are easy to find in stores, what with children growing up at an accelerated rate. If there are push-up bras for 6-year-olds, why not interview suits? I thought of tearing holes in Erika's t-shirt and jeans, and have her say she's dressed as a software developer. Other people have pointed out that the t-shirt would need to have not been washed for at least a month; so perhaps it's too late for that.

For some subversive fun I suppose I could dress Erika in a t-shirt with a restaurant logo, with a black apron, a credit card holder sticking out of the pocket, and a rag tucked into the waistband. But aside from my unwillingness to waste time on putting together such an outfit, it would require Erika's cooperation, and I don't think she would find it cool. And she is too young to have an opinion on whether those kinds of jobs will be the only ones available for her generation.
A bunch of authors, editors, critics and booksellers discuss their science fiction, fantasy and horror picks of the year. Willie Siros usually presents his list of notable genre books that came out in the last year or two, but he forgot the list at home. So he recalled from memory five recent books that left the biggest impression to him. Here they are.

Willie's five most recommended genre books of the year, and another five, less impressive but still goodCollapse )

Novels that inspired a discussion

Nnedi Okorafor 'Who Fears Death'Collapse )

Hannu Rajaniemi 'Quantum Thief'Collapse )

John Scalzi "Fuzzy Nation"

Willie Siros counts this book in his "memorable, but not Top 5" category, but Martin Wagner was extremely impressed by it. Scalzi's take on that world was very faithful to H. Beam Piper (the author who originally thought up the fuzzies), but also uniquely his own. Martin liked a contemporary take on that particular story.

Mary Robinette Kowal "Shades of Milk and Honey" was another debut novel Willie was impressed with, and Martin liked it too. It's a Jane Austin pastiche.

Michelle Muenzler's recommendations, mostly fantasyCollapse )

Martin Wagner's recommendationsCollapse )

Elizabeth Bear's recommendations (fantasy)Collapse )

Disappointing BooksCollapse )

Audience recommends

Several members of the audience recommended these books:

Iain Banks "Surface Detail" has fabulous ideas, fabulous writing, says a guy in the audience.

Alyx Dellamonica "Indigo Springs".

Ian Macdonald "Dervish House" should have won a Hugo, says an audience member.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2011 are in my photo gallery.
ArmadilloCon writers' workshop followed the familiar agenda from the years before. The unexpected, as always, happened at the time of games and critiques.

The writing game was dreamt up by Scott Lynch at 3 a.m. the night before. Surprisingly (or not), it was one of the more meaningful games compared to previous workshops. (I just can't get into "let's collectively write a story" exercises. If I'm not in a complete control of my story, I stall. This was different.) You had to come up with a 4-sentence a story, or a synopsis thereof. Then an "evil" editor would tell you to make changes to make the story more sellable. You had to make them in 10 minutes. Finally everyone was supposed to read their original story, editor's comments, and the final story out loud. Luckily for me, due to time pressure only 4 or 5 people had to share their works.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Allyson and Jason

Jayme Lynn Blaschke, the "editor" (left), gives sly suggestions how to improve Allyson's and Jason's stories at the writing game. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

The editors were supposed to be intentionally evil: their feedback required the author to throw away his or her precious idea. Let's say you wrote a story where humans, having landed on an alien planet, drilled into its core and found intelligent life there. The editor would praise your hard SF concept, and tell you that the drill actually bore into hell, and it's not aliens there, but demons. Or if your plot is influenced by the physics of a rotating black hole, the editor would say that rotating black holes are so last decade, and you should make it a diamond star (which was on the news recently).

Such an exercise may seem absurd, but its point was to teach us how to write "on demand". An editor can and will ask to make changes, and you have to cooperate even if your muse doesn't. Don't wait for the muse to inspire you, but crank out a product when you're asked to, and don't treat your ideas as sacred.

Paolo Bacigalupi, Lou Anders, and Mark Finn

Paolo Bacigalupi, Lou Anders, and Mark Finn at the critique group. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Later it was time for critiques. I was lucky to be in a group that not only was taught by great critiquers -- Guest of Honor Paolo Bacigalupi, and Mark Finn (who, by the way, has an uncanny ability to come up with plot twists to improve students' stories), but a third pro spontaneously joined our group. It was Pyr editor Lou Anders. I don't know what prompted him to join us, but he speed-read students' stories while the other group members were speaking, and gave critiques on the spot. Speed-reading (which, I presume, is all he does as an editor) made the stories look different to him than they did to other members who gave them more consideration. This was good, because it made the flaws really stand out. He didn't pick up on what other people (including the pros) identified as good parts of my story, but immediately pointed out a major flaw. It is invaluable to know how an editor sees a story.

All three pros not only pointed out what was wrong with the students' works, but gave suggestions how to improve them. That doesn't always happen. It gives me more confidence that maybe this will be the year I will revise my story based on the feedback. (No, I didn't do it the previous years. Bad writer. Bad!)

So what is Texas Weird?

A comment by Mark Finn clarified for me what "Texas Weird" genre is. Brainstorming ways to make one student's story better, he said: "Your opening sentence should be 'The President was holding a closed door meeting with severed heads.'" This would put the story in the Texas Weird genre. It pulls the curtain off the key historical moments and shows us how certain world-changing decisions were made, Mark explained. Yes, a president consulting severed heads might not even be the most unreasonable explanation for some US foreign or domestic policy decisions of recent decades.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

ArmadilloCon 2011 panels I want to see

Here are the panels I want to see at this year's ArmadilloCon (August 26-28). In square brackets are my comments on why I'm interested in that particular panel. The ones in bold are must-see for me. Well... as must-see as can be after going for a decade to a convention where pretty much all the same people are on panels year after year, and you more or less know what they are going to say. Fortunately, guests of honor can liven things up.


Organized fandom and martinisCollapse )

Worldbuilding for umpteenth time, or aliens?Collapse )


Assorted panels on writing, probably meh; a couple of must-see ones.Collapse )


Nothing really must-see until 1 p.m., and then only a couple of panels of mild-to-moderate interest to meCollapse )
There were no wizard costumes at the Harry Potter movie at Lakeline Alamo Drafthouse last Friday. To non-Austinites: Alamo Drafthouse is a movie theater that serves food and drink during the show. They often have some special dishes that resonate with the theme of the movie; for example, at the Harry Potter movies they serve butterbeer, hot in winter and frozen in summer. The frozen version is an adult cider-laced smoothie or frappucino; nothing to write home about. These are just little touches that gave Alamo Drafthouse its unique-to-Austin, quirky reputation, but it goes further than that.

We got to the theater 25 minutes early, and it was already so full that Ray and I could hardly find two adjacent seats. We had a choice between first row and the handicapped table. A waiter let us use the handicapped table, but the problem is that the chairs that come with it are the folding kind. They are small and uncomfortable. They are intended to be stowed away when people in wheelchairs use the table. Luckily, Ray remembered that he hasn't unloaded lawn chairs from the trunk of his car. The waiter allowed us to bring in our chairs and use them. That's staying true to the spirit of this town.

And the movie? It was such a faithful interpretation of the book, it was like watching one big, moving illustration of the book. It didn't disappoint, but also didn't add anything to my Harry Potter experience. At best it was interesting to see how some other person (the director) imagined certain scenes; but what's so special about this director that I would care how he imagined them? And one of the creepiest scenes of the book (to me, at least) -- the one with golden treasures in Belatrix's vault multiplying exponentially -- was much less scary in the movie than in the book. Imagination, after all, gives you better visuals. There may have been extra lines in some of the iconic scenes, but that's it.

... except for the finale, where Voldemort bites off Harry's finger and falls into a fiery abyss, destroying the seventh horcrux! I didn't see that one coming! :-)
There is a family of two living on the first floor directly under your apartment: a middle-aged mother with a nineteen-year-old daughter. They seem reasonably nice, but most of your interactions with them have been tense. The day you moved in, they "welcomed" you with complaints that your child is making too much noise. Indeed, your child has been running all around the apartment, like she got used to at your old place (which is now her dad's). That was a single-family house where she could run to her heart's content. You realized the problem, apologized, and told the child there will be no running or jumping here. You keep reminding her of the new rules every moment she's about to launch into a run, or even a brisk walk. Being just 5 at the time, she sometimes forgets. The neighbors promptly remind you of her transgressions. They don't tolerate noise at any time of the day. "My mom has to get up for work at 4 a.m., so she goes to sleep very early," says the teenager, coming to your door at 7 p.m. on a sunny spring evening.

Other times they just bang on the ceiling. Usually it's three loud, distinct knocks. Sometimes they come to you to complain a few minutes later. Other times they don't, and you sit there waiting for "the other shoe to drop". Increasingly, though, you notice that you can't correlate those knocks with anything your child (or you) did, at least not above the ordinary. Did they knock because they heard you yell at the child for refusing to brush her teeth? But other times there's not even a remote possibility of that. Sometimes they come and complain after your daughter has been sitting in bed, reading or playing board games for half an hour. Other times they knock in the middle of the day when the child is not even here.

After a few run-ins with the neighbor, your mom (who's staying here for the time being) concludes that those noises are all in the neighbor's head. But she also starts to doubt whether the knocks we're are hearing really come from the downstairs neighbors. But where could they be coming from? Definitely not from the apartment on our left, the only other apartment bordering ours. Your mom, though, hears other noises coming from places where "there can't be anything". Maybe it's maintenance people doing something on the outside of the building, she says. Or in some cases, pigeons. That would explain the cooing in the morning.

Oh, and did the neighbor say she heard your child's footsteps, or did she only infer? That last time she said her dog was barking wildly. She found this fact to be relevant to her complaint. Did she actually conclude that the child was running because her dog started to bark?

You start to wonder if the neighbor is crazy, or if she's hearing the same mysterious knocks that you attribute to her. And the dog... Dogs are supposed to be able to hear and feel things humans can't perceive, right? In urban fantasy and horror, they do. So there may be something the dog is responding to, and it's not your little girl. In a Stephen King tale, it would be something you would never want your little girl to come face to face to. But it would happen precisely because I'm a skeptic. :-)

Tangled up in cords (not umbilical)

Labor and delivery in a modern hospital exposes you to some amusing tech gadgets. There is a computer on wheels by your bed that displays a graph of your baby's (OK, fetus's) heart rate, and a graph of your contractions. Sometimes a nurse comes in to check on you, and pulls up another patient's graphs besides yours -- multitasking, I guess. So you can see how strong or frequent are this other, anonymous patient's contractions, and play an imaginary race against her. Faster! Stronger! Who's going to deliver a baby first?

(And here's a bit of trivia. Semi-reclining in bed is called semi-fowlers in nurse parlance. Sitting up straight in bed is called high fowlers. I know this because the nurse, whenever she came in to check on me, made notes of my position in the computer by the bed. I finally asked her what that meant.)

Baby heart rate and contraction monitors were by far the most annoying aspect of hospital birth. They made my first, pre-induction night the most uncomfortable -- more so than the two postpartum nights. I had to sleep in a hospital gown, on a bed that is designed for delivering babies, not sleep. The whole time I was tethered to the monitors that were placed on my belly and had cables going from them to the computer stand. Whenever I shifted, let alone rolled over on the other side, the monitors slipped off. Then the nurse would come in and mess with them for 10 minutes at a time to reposition them. This happened at least once an hour. I'm surprised I got even one hour of sleep. I finally drifted off early in the morning, and was woken up by the nurse at 6 a.m., who came in to start the induction. Oh, and the evening before I barely talked the nurses into unplugging my IV port from the IV line, to which they had me hooked up most of the evening. The reason? The baby's heart rate seemed too high, so they were giving me fluids. (I don't see a connection here, but I'm not a doctor.)

Going to the bathroom is an ordeal. You have to unplug the cords of the two monitors' and automatic blood pressure cuff, sling them over your shoulder and take them with you to the bathroom. The exercise is pointless -- the monitors will slip off of their fine-tuned positions on your belly, and will have to be readjusted. You might as well take them off, but instead you do as the nurse said, and drag them and the cords with you. You ask for cordless monitors, and the hospital staff brings them to you as soon as they can find some (they only have two cordless monitors on this floor, and they are in use all the time), but that still doesn't do you much good, because you also have to drag the damn IV stand with you to the bathroom! It makes the whole trip only marginally less cumbersome.

The next most annoying thing was a self-adjusting bed in the postpartum room. It makes tiny adjustments to its elevation and angle the whole time you are in it. As soon as you sit down, the bed slightly inflates or elevates the part you're sitting on; sometimes even when you are lying still, the bed will inflate or deflate under you. Those shifts are minuscule, and your position hardly changes at all; only the low whirr of a motor and vibration informs you that the bed is doing something. A nurse explained to me that this is to prevent bed sores -- not that postpartum patients are in much danger of those, but the hospital has just one type of bed, and this is it. And no, these self-adjustments can't be turned off. In two days I still didn't get used to them enough to ignore them. It's as if this inanimate thing is constantly annoyed by your presence and squirms to get out from under you. :-) It's hard not to take it personally. It makes you wonder if we really want "smart houses" in our future. Maybe I'll be just as happy with "dumb" furniture that's not aware of my presence.
Little baby Rowan, Ray's and my son, has been with us for 2 weeks already. So now I have finally got to posting about his arrival. Had to take care of first things first, such as finish a story and submit it for ArmadilloCon (local science fiction convention) writers' workshop before the deadline.

Rowan's birth date was 11 days after his due date, and my labor had to be induced, as the doctor didn't want to let me go much more beyond 41st week of pregnancy. (Especially not at my "advanced maternal age".) When I got to the hospital on a Sunday night there were indications that an early stage of labor was already starting, but probably would have taken days to speed up on its own. So we went ahead with the induction in the morning. It went a lot like my first induced labor 6 years ago with Erika: not much happened at first, but when the nurses noticeably ratcheted up the dose of pitocin, contractions became fast, furious and very close together. Luckily, this being Monday and not Saturday, I got an epidural within about half an hour of asking for one. The previous time it took more than 2 hours, because a doctor and an anesthesiologist had to be phoned and then had to drive to the hospital.

A very grumpy-looking baby Rowan Erika gives a bottle to baby brother Rowan
A very grumpy-looking baby Rowan on the day of his birth. Must not like camera flash in his face. Erika meets her baby brother for the first time and symbolically "gives" him a bottle as Ray holds him.

Anyway, Rowan Tempest Daniel was born on June 20th, 2011 at 5 pm, 22 1/4 inches long (56.6 cm) and weighing 10 pounds 6 ounces (4.71 kg). Yes, he's big. In some ways it's like having a two month-old kid. :-) From day one he could raise his head and hold it up for a few seconds before it flopped down to one side. He also has been making attempts to crawl: he tries to push himself forward with his knees and feet, but mostly he just succeeds moving sideways in a wiggly worm fashion. Also, if he gets his arm trapped under him, he rolls over on his back. That's probably because his heavy head pulls him to one side, assisting a rollover. Here is a video of Rowan "crawling". The more he tries to crawl, the more his squawks of annoyance become cries of outrage.

He resembles a wasabi root sometimes (the source of the image on the right is http://www.prawnco.com/upload_images/wasabi%20root.jpg), but isn't as fussy and difficult to raise. By now he wakes up to eat only once a night, not counting a late night 10-11 p.m. feeding, but I'm still awake at those times; the next feeding is usually about 4-5 a.m. The last couple of nights he slept as many as 8-9 hours without getting hungry, but we don't know if this will last.

Swaddled Rowan as a wasabi root A real wasabi root

He also sometimes briefly laughs in his sleep, though it is anybody's guess what a newborn might find funny.

Erika has been getting along well with the baby, though she makes a point to scrunch her face in disgust whenever his diaper is being changed. She also likes to watch me breastfeeding Rowan, and even asked me to breastfeed her. Which I'm absolutely NOT going to do, ick. :-) Overall she's bored at home (she's not going to day care until I'm back at work, which should be August 1st). My mom and Ray have been doing much to help her boredom, like taking her swimming and bike riding, but I can't help her much with that. A couple of times I took her out for some entertainment, but I can only do that for short periods of time while the baby is asleep and my mom is home with him. I don't want to take a baby this young out in public. Immune system and all that. Mom will leave in 10 days, and then Erika, baby and I may be stranded at home until August 1st; it may get rough, but it's only temporary.

More pictures of Rowan and Erika are in my photo gallery.


How wishlists are like orthodox rituals

First, I'll grumble about Amazon.com wishlists a bit. There should be a way to group items with AND, OR, and NOT operators. For example, I want bag A, or bag B, or bag C, all of which look very similar, but not all three. But in addition to those bags I also might like a wallet, which is assigned an equally high priority in my list. So my wishlist clause would be (Bag A OR Bag B OR Bag C) AND (Wallet D OR Wallet E).

Overthinking much? Maybe that's why I'm the least fun person to get gifts for. Knowing how to want the right kind of presents is an art I have never mastered. By right kind I mean the kind that easily lend themselves to dropping hints. Isn't that how Miss Manners claims it should be done? A lady gushes about the beauty of a particular object, and her significant other, family or friends are make note of that. That's how they get ideas for what to get her for birthdays and holidays.

And of course, the items should be in the right price range for the significant other, family, etc.

But what if the items you truly crave are so specific that a mere hint would not suffice -- the exact make and model is needed? What if, indeed, dropping a mere hint could lead to a gift-giving disaster, where the giver spends a chunk of cash on a product that differs from your object of desire in small, crucial detail? What if it's an iPad when you wanted an Android tablet? Or it has a touchscreen keyboard when you need a physical one?

In a world of increasing customization, where advertising industry pushes products "as unique as you are", it's getting harder to be satisfied by things that were supposed to please everyone in a certain demographic category: perfume, a journal with handcrafted covers, a DVD of a popular movie. I myself have been guilty of wanting rather idiosyncratic products: a wallet that would double as a handbag and a waistpack; an MP3 player that would record radio programs AND play audiobooks. Those things do exist but they are not easy to find. And if they lack one of these functions, I'd rather not have them at all than let them rot in the back of the closet.

So I made up a wishlist. Amazon.com makes it so easy. Not only it sells everything under the Sun, but if another online store has an item Amazon doesn't sell, you can still add it to your Amazon wishlist via a Firefox extension. (I haven't installed it and can't vouch for how it works.) Great -- you made it easy on your nearest-and-dearest. But how is it different from them handing you a wad of cash and telling you to go buy what you want? There is no surprise in it -- and in my old-fashioned notions, surprise is a key element of gift-giving. Perhaps technology that lets you have your wishes fulfilled so precisely could also help you restore the element of surprise. Maybe wishlists could have some kind of "random" feature, that would let the gift-giver pick a random element from category A, B, or C. But isn't this just building a layer of meaningless ritual to soften the ruthless practicality of the transaction? Isn't it akin to Orthodox Jews keeping hallway lights on all night on Sabbath, because they're not allowed to operate light switches? Or programming elevators to stop on every floor, because they're not allowed to push buttons? Or connecting two houses with a string so they could bring something to a neighbor's house, because then the two houses are considered to be "under one roof? (Is carrying stuff on Sabbath permitted under the same roof, but not outside? It boggles the mind too much to even seek logic in this.) Similarly with wishlists -- once they destroy the spirit of gift-giving, trying to reintroduce it would be just as artificial.

As they say on Twitter, #firstworldproblems.

But so what? Guilt for my own materialistic attitude spices up the sweetness of presents. Shouldn't presents come with a little bit of guilt? Of course they should. At least I could feel virtuous today on my birthday for not indulging in my favorite foods -- sushi, blue cheese or margaritas. Not because I choose to, but because I can't. The baby is not out yet, though his due date was yesterday. Clearly I won't be sharing a birthday with him. But at least I'm writing these words at home, full of tasty food, instead of sucking on an icicle in a delivery room. :-)

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