The Whale of Human Bias

On today’s episode of Melissa Chases the White Whale in Long-Winded Fashion, we’re going to talk about human bias, the challenge of unlearning what you have learned, and the general difficulties of epistemology. Grab your spacesuits and hitch your belt to New Horizons: first stop, Pluto.

You’ll always be a planet to me.

The solar system has changed since I was a kid. We used to learn there were nine planets, and I bet a lot of us loved that weird little outlier called Pluto the best because we associated it with the lovable Disney dog instead of the probably more apt Greek god of the underworld. Remember the cranky-but-sassy villain from Hercules? Blue-haired dude called Hades? Same guy, mythologically speaking, but that didn’t stop us from dreaming about our little ninth planet and what lay beyond. And then in 2006, the International Astronomical Union shrank the solar system, leaving us with only a measly eight planets and a demoted (and not unique) but well-known dwarf planet. It’s science, nothing personal or spiritual or philosophical, but dear lord, you’d have thought the Giants had busted Eli Manning down to water boy, or the Pope had reclassified Jesus as a mere saint.

This isn’t religion, folks. It isn’t sports. We’re talking about science. SCIENCE! For goodness sake, this is supposed to be the realm of the impartial, the land of those led by the data and not by conviction. And yet…there are t-shirts and memes and memorials to Pluto’s planetary status, as if redefining it had smashed it to smithereens instead of merely drawing a lot of publicity to the generally challenging task of classifying celestial objects.

Speaking of the challenge of understanding celestial objects…

I had the immense pleasure of attending the Carl Sagan Prize lecture during WorldCon, which was given by Br. Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory. His talk was “Discarded Worlds: Astronomical Ideas That Were Almost Correct,” and I’d recommend it when you’ve got an hour. If you haven’t just now, the broad point is that science is habitually wrong. It’s part of the process of science, of course, but science is also capable of being wrong even if we have the tools to correctly collect or interpret the data. Why?

Human error, and human bias. Which is to say, even scientists, the gatekeepers who understand sound experimental design and the math that is important for making sense of experimental data, are capable (even prone to) calculation errors that go unchecked for really long periods of time, questionable interpretation of the data to fit their pet theories, and even, now and again, deliberate suppression of data.

…Which leads me to a little light statistics.

So there’s this thing in statistics called a p-value. Don’t ask me to get into the math, but the point of a p-value is to check whether or not a particular effect could have been arrived at by chance. It’s basically the Bechdel test of science, which is to say that it quickly sorts an experiment into one of two broad piles, but doesn’t actually say anything about whether the math can really be used to draw the conclusion the authors are trying to draw. It has become the golden standard of publishing, but it’s problematic. Fidgeting with the numbers to get a publishable p-value is enough of a problem that it has a name: p-hacking.

We’re not talking about scientists at the dawn of the Renaissance who are afraid of being burned alive for defying the church if they don’t doctor their numbers. We’re talking about modern scientists. I mean, it’s not like they’re at risk of anything important, right? Like their funding, or livelihood, or meaningful place in scientific history…

Ah. That’s the rub, isn’t it?

Let’s talk truth and consequences.

We live in a world where being wrong is the worst thing ever. Make a sarcastic remark that gets deliberately misconstrued as racist by some self-righteous internet troll? Your career could go down in flames. Decide that you disagree with some minor point of doctrine in your church? Heretic – get thee behind us, you are now shunned! Fail to get publishable p-values out of your experiments? Bad doctor, no tenure for you!

Fighting internet trolls is a hopeless battle. (Here’s a raised hand in favor of giving people a little more benefit of the doubt and a little gentler dissent when we think they’re wrong, though that’s an ongoing struggle for me.) Convincing some religious folks that it’s hot hurting anyone for others to disagree with their beliefs is a Sisyphean task on a good day. (And I get it, I do–faith can be a real house of cards, logically speaking, but if that house of cards is the only thing standing between you and the indifferent tornado of life, you’re gonna stick with it, even if it means the shingles of your belief are inflicting supersonic papercuts on the rest of the people who are trying to survive the storm, but that’s a story all on its own.) Persuading scientists that it’s acceptable to be wrong, however, should be as simple as not punishing them for doing science, i.e., being wrong in a lot of ways that help define the body of knowledge.

10 years later and academia has made a lovely about face to support researchers…

Imagine this shift in academia has happened. Imagine that being published isn’t about p-value or being right, but about communicating how things have or haven’t worked in order to help other researchers ask smarter questions. Science is doing the thing science is meant to do and sitting comfortable with the importance of being wrong. Hypothesis: we’re still going to be slogging against bias and unnoticed calculation errors. “What about peer review?” you say. Or, “What if we gave scientists genuine financial motivation to find basic calculation errors in the studies they review?”

All well and good, if you don’t mind throwing acid on an already frequently toxic academic dynamic, of course, but even if you’ve got academics taking each other down with the gleeful commitment of wizards vying to be head of the Unseen University, there are still limitations to the interaction of human bias and science and my reason for thinking this begins with socks.

Knit’s about to get real.

I’ve been knitting since 2007 and making up my own patterns nearly as long, though it took me maybe three years to start sharing patterns. By the time I designed and submitted my first sock design to a publication, I was pretty confident that I knew a thing or two about knitting.


So my pattern was accepted (yay!) and sent off to the technical editor (*trembles*) and then I get an email. “Hey, can you check your gauge again? Stockinette stitch shouldn’t be square…”

That’s weird, I thought. Stockinette almost always comes up square for me. I took some measurements of the sock in question and some close photos and sent back the evidence. My gauge was, indeed, square. It just wasn’t stockinette. For those of you who don’t knit, stockinette is essentially the most basic stitch when you’re working in the round. It’s the foundation of all knitting. It’s one stitch all the time and it’s the stitch that everything in knitting was based on and I WAS DOING IT WRONG. I was getting away with it because I know how to work with gauge and design modification (the math is pre-algebra stuff, we’re not talking rocket science here), but I was using a non-standard base stitch to get there in a way that effects both fit and wear over time…and is therefore a massive no-no in commercial clothing pattern design.

“Wait,” I hear you saying. “Isn’t this an example of peer review working to clue you in on something you didn’t know?”

Yes, yes it is, but there’s more. The tech editor, who is a gem of a human person, offered to Skype with me and help me figure out what I’m doing wrong. She took one look at my hands in action and said, “Oh, you’re wrapping the yarn wrong.” I frowned and fussed, “I don’t understand. A knitting instructor told me I was wrapping the yarn wrong when I was going the other way.”

She shook her head. “I wish people wouldn’t try to teach when they don’t know what they’re doing. You must have learned how to knit the way they do in Eastern Europe, so your stitches are oriented differently on the needle, which makes a difference. What you’ve got to understand is that what matters isn’t so much how you make the stitch as how the stitch comes out. You’ve got to understand the nature of the fabric.”

I’m paraphrasing, but the general point was a good one, and it’s pushed me into spending a lot of time thinking about how we arrive at a set a beliefs about what we know, and how we break them if we don’t have someone with a legitimately deeper understanding of subject X to look at our work and say, “You don’t even understand the question you’re trying to ask, do you?”

I swear, this post really is about science.

My friend Dan reminded me recently that science, while not perfect, is really the best tool that we have for not lying to ourselves. I agree with that statement. I also have a lot of confidence in at least the hard sciences to work through the bias bit by bit, because EVENTUALLY there’s bound to be a dataset in an experiment that points out the wrongness of some conclusions and we can make progress, even if that progress is tiny and incremental.

What is extremely, very not clear is how well the process of science can function when the parameters of study that make science work are not available for ethical or practical reasons. The psycholinguists in the room are probably chuckling creepily to themselves and imagining an experimental design inquiry into the importance of nature vs. nurture. I’m edging slightly further away from them and looking at my knitting and wondering how science can help me make sure that my next knitting design won’t be rejected for some other small but critical error.

And the answer hit me last night, with the help of my husband, the crappy wiring of our old house, and Doctor Who.

Let There Be Minor Electrical Fires

So John and I live in a house that has seen the turn of two centuries. Because the last century has seen an incredible leap in technology and availability of that technology for managing day-to-day tasks, our house has been put through several wiring changes and is due for another. We’ve been swapping out outlets here and there, but we still have a few that only have two prongs, which we compensate for by using the ground adapters, and like probably 99% of Americans with old wiring, we were using them wrong until I read that the reason they have the little metal tab that everyone breaks off is because if you take out the outlet cover screw and reinstall it through that tab, it will ground the outlet.

I shared this tidbit with John while he was in the middle of dealing with a possible wiring issue that was putting strain on his UPS, and he decided I was misinformed, which came out while we were discussing another old outlet.

“There’s no grounding wire to any of these outlets,” he said. “That screw just connects the tab through to the grounding wire screw. It won’t do any good if there’s no grounding wire.”

I squinted at him. “Why would an ungrounded outlet have a grounding wire screw?”

He opened the garage door and waggled a finger at me. “I’ll go get the old outlet so you can see!”

Thirty seconds later he comes in without the old outlet, but with a screwdriver and a grounding adapter that we have not broken the tab off. “Okay, so it doesn’t have a grounding screw,” he says. And sure enough, when he tested the circuit before and after attaching the screw, it went from “open ground” to “correct.”

I’ve been poking around the internet a bit, and it seems like there are plenty of circumstances under which this would not have worked, but our ancient outlets still use the metal boxes and conduits, so I lucked out and ended up being right to think John was wrong for blowing off the bit of advice I had picked up from some dubiously more knowledgeable source online. (So gratifying, that, and rare in the case of home improvement questions.) The only reasons I pushed the issue here, however, are (1) I have a history of being slightly less wrong than John where electricity is concerned, hey-o Radioshack! and (2) my baseline assumption is that I don’t know a damn thing about how house wiring functions except what I have been told by people who do know how house wiring functions, in so much as anyone can know how house wiring functions given that a lot of houses are patchwork monsters of wiring systems from various eras. John had stopped pushing the question on the adapters only because he thought he had figured out how they worked.

All of which led me to give the Doctor a mental high-five for the line from the new season, “I try never to understand. It’s called an open mind.”

And that’s the kicker at the heart of science, isn’t it? Not knowing. Anyone who stayed awake long enough to pass their 101 science requirements in undergrad knows that you can’t ever prove a theory, not really. You can repeat results that fit with the theory enough times that people get comfortable with the notion that you’re right, but at the end of the day, science is about hacking away at the wrong possibilities, which are plentiful. And whether we’re talking about Pluto, or p-values, or socks, or ground adapters, I think what science does best is remind us that none of us knows nearly as much as we’d like to think we know.

Out on the Open Mind

Still with me? Bless your patient heart, and here’s the tl;dr decoder ring at the bottom of the serial (see what I did there, eh, eh?) box…

  1. Unknowing stuff is hard.
  2. Other people can help us unknow stuff,
  3. But sometimes they don’t know that they don’t know stuff either.
  4. This is fine, because nobody really knows stuff.
  5. So what can we do?
  6. Mostly, just keep in mind that we don’t know stuff, and, of course…

Keep looking.

If You Give a Writer Twitter

If you give a writer Twitter, there’s a good chance that she will turn to it for camaraderie in the middle of an otherwise lonely and boring editing session.

“Love being able to delete large swathes of text first thing in the a.m.! #editing,” she will start to write, and then stop, because Twitter is the only way she connects with some of her professional contacts, and some of them are published and even have agents, and…

“Is ‘swath’ the best word choice? Is that even how you spell the plural? Swathes, swaths…”

The writer will definitely need an online dictionary, and while she’s there, she might as well take a look at the etymology of swath. “Did you know that in Middle English, ‘swath’ was a specific measurement referring to the width of a path cleared by the arc of a mower’s scythe?”

If you give a writer an interesting etymological tidbit, there’s a good chance she’ll want to share it with her friends. She’ll get halfway through typing another tweet before she realizes a Google infograph is not a reliable primary resource, and she would hate to mislead anyone, so she’ll start looking for scholarly resources related to farming practices in feudal England and get all the way through the abstract of something really boring before she realizes that she could have avoided this entire scenario if she changed “swathes” to “chunks” in her tweet, and besides, she’s much more interested in trying to remember what it’s called when you read a word so many times it stops looking like a word.

“Semantic satiation. Oh, that’s always fun to talk to writers about…”

But then “semantic satiation” eats up too many characters to be a good topic for a tweet, so instead, she’ll start to write a blog post instead. She’ll get halfway through a page before she has to look up another word and remembers that she was supposed to be making progress on the boring edits. With a deep sigh, she’ll save the post for later and return to her manuscript.

After she makes a fresh cup of coffee, of course, because the first one is already gone, and everyone knows it’s pointless to try to edit anything without coffee.

Inevitably, the first note she reads will speak deeply and universally to the plight of all writers, alone at their keyboards. “Excessive gerunds,” the writer will think. “Everyone hates finding excessive gerunds in their work! I bet my Twitter friends can relate.”

Spokane: Too Twee to be True

This is the clock tower in Riverfront Park. The sun is more scary than gorgeous here: that haze and odd sky color is smoke from the forest fires.

This is the clock tower in Riverfront Park. The sun is more scary than gorgeous here: that haze and odd sky color is smoke from the forest fires.

Spokane (Spoh-can, not Spoh-cain), Washington is too cute. I do not say this lightly. Spokane is so cheek-pinching adorable that John and I kept joking that it must have some hidden dark secret fueling the bizarre cleanliness and friendliness and usability and walkability of the city. I made this comment to a local and she laughed. “Yeah, we have to sacrifice to the dark ones every couple of decades.”

That’s it. Forget Maine. I’m moving to Washington.

Spokane is the cool, lesser known cousin of Portland (OR, that is)–in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s where all the hipsters go once they decide that Portland is too mainstream. But enough of the general huzzahs. Let’s get specific.

Travel tip#1: If you fly into the airport (possibly on a prop plane, sorry my fellow easily-queased), a taxi ride into downtown will run you around $30 including an okay tip. Or you can find the chipperly labeled bus stop and take Bus 60 into town. Fare is $1.50, exact change required. The trip is about twenty minutes. You can take the same bus just as easily by picking it up in the Spokane Transit Authority Plaza at Zone 8.

Stuff Your Face with Cuteness

This list represents a scant fraction of the delightful looking eating spots downtown. We would have tried more, but we were busy scavenging for free food or eating on the floor of the convention center with good company for quite a few meals, so these are the only ones I can report first-hand experience.

Manito Park Bench Cafe

The quality of the food here wasn’t mind-blowing, but it was solid sandwichy type stuff for under $10/person with a few vegetarian options. It was circumstantially incredible because we were tired and hungry after walking through the park from the other side, and this was an unexpected oasis of shade and live folk music. Definitely get their beverages – I had fresh lemonade, John had their peach green iced tea, and we were both thoroughly refreshed.

Luigi’s Italian Restaurant

Set in a refurbished Salvation Army building with a long history, this place has a formal yet cozy feel. It’s one of the closest restaurants to the convention center, so it was swamped when we went in, but the service was still fast and friendly. Excellent food, nothing unexpected. The meat sauce was a little heavy on something green and strongly herbal for my taste (rosemary? oregano?), but I would eat there again. Absolutely possible to eat for under $20/person, but only just.


Nitro cold-brew iced coffee! If you need me to say more, this place provides job training for at-risk youth, donates a meal for every bag of coffee sold, and has an honor system for basic and quick cups of coffee, which is a very humanizing way for folks who can’t afford a cup of coffee at regular prices still enjoy a hot drink. Worth supporting, and your tongue won’t regret it.

Black Label Brewing Company @ Saranac Commons

The Saranac Commons, not to be confused with the Saranac Pub just down the street, is a little conglomeration of businesses, one of which is Black Label, which kindly put up with the r/fantasy Drinks with Authors meetup completely overtaking their space. They’re a beer and cider place, and we had something called d’s Wicked Baked Apple Cider…a choice which rippled like a wave through the folks around us to the apparent pleasure of everyone. I went back later to try one of the other businesses and Black Label had live music going and, with a less hectic crowd, the atmosphere was very relaxed.

Frank’s Diner

Frank's Diner

We mostly stuck with the free continental at our hotel for most breakfasts, but by Friday I needed something different lest I lose my mind and start flinging boiled eggs madly at everyone who walked into the breakfast nook. We were planning to check out the NWMAC (it’s coming, keep your pants on), so we chose something in that general direction to break up an otherwise longish walk and ended up at Frank’s Diner. A+ on the experience, A++ on the food. I got some vegetarian twist on Eggs Benedict, which made me really regret that I’ve outgrown licking my plate in public. The fun bit about Frank’s is that it’s set up in an antique railroad car—lots of polished wood and leaded glass. We ate at the counter, so we got to watch the very professional chefs in action for even more fun. It’s also a place that operates on the farm to fork model, so it manages to be more of a hipster spoon than a greasy spoon.

Madeleine’s Patisserie

Trés français, if you’ll pardon my probably wrong French. Dusty blue and ecru (it’s not the sort of place that just uses white or cream, of course) with dark wood and reclaimed industrial details with flourish bits here and there make for a very cute little coffee spot. In college, they would have been hard pressed to kick me out if I needed a spot to read post-modern philosophy. Oh, right—they also have very nice coffee, and the croissant I had was buttery fresh and bigger than my face. Fortunately, my face is like a Tardis: bigger on the inside.

The Stacks at Steam Plant

I have no idea if we ate at the Stacks or the Steam Plant or the Steam Plant Brewing Company…too many names in one place. The size and mazishness of the place probably merits the confusion – dinner and entertainment! Getting from your table back to any exit is just like being locked in a puzzle room, no extra charge! A steampunk puzzle room, no less. The building is exactly what it sounds like: an old steam plant, converted for commercial use, and the environment is gorgeous. The food was more-ish…my pasta was obviously fresh, and our dessert had candied bacon on the top. I have no idea what else you could possibly ask for from a nice dinner out.

Sweet Frostings

I saw a sign on a shop window advertising cupcakes our first night in town and spent the rest of the week trying to find a time to return…and then where to return to once I realized I hadn’t made note of the shop’s location. The quest was worth the bothering of three different local folks. Recommended cosplay: amigurami based on anime characters. Seriously. An adorable sugar monster vomited cuteness and scrumptious cupcakes all over this place. I especially love that the cupcakes were reasonable cupcake size with normal amounts of frosting, which means (1) you can eat an entire cupcake by yourself without fear of instant death from sugar shock and (2) the cake was nice and moist. I liked their coffee better than Madeleine’s, but to be fair, I always like coffee better with good chocolate, and that cupcake was very good chocolate.

Mediterrano @ Saranac Commons

I hadn’t managed to work my way through the food line when we were at the commons for the very crowded Drinks with Authors thing, so I doubled back Saturday night to try the little Mediterranean bistro. I didn’t love the dolbas, but in retrospect, maybe I was confusing dolmas with something else, so cold minty rice (I think?) in a grape leaf was not quite what I was expecting.  The falafel gyro, on the other hand, transcended all other falafel I have ever put in my mouth and left me craving more in the sort of way that will drive me to eat nothing but falafel until I find a local place that’s at least vaguely comparable. It may have been that good mostly because I was hungry enough to start wondering how passersby would taste with ketchup, but still: it was good and fast and inexpensive and reasonably healthy and I would eat there all the time if I worked nearby.

Enjoy some fresh air (but if it’s fire season, maybe check the air quality report if you have breathing sensitivities)

We lucked out an had some lovely walking days in spite of the fact the Washington is more or less entirely on fire. It’s bad though, folks, to the point that FEMA declared a national disaster, so if you’re close by, be safe and keep an eye on the air quality reports. If you’re not there, organizations like FEMA and the Red Cross always need support for taking care of people who have been evacuated.

Riverfront Park

Louff Carrousel

This park is right downtown, and if you’re in town for a convention, you’d be nuts to not walk to the center along the Centennial Trail instead of on the boring old sidewalks. There are all kinds of odd little sculptures and some damn gorgeous landscaping. And ducks. And geese. (Pro tip: don’t sit on the grass without first thoroughly inspecting for geese poop. You’re welcome.) There are at least half a dozen bridges crossing to Canada Island and over to the other main bank over some gentle falls, and every single one of them has a view worth considering backwards and forwards. (Pro tip #2: Taking a walk? Turn around once in a while. Scenery looks different from the other direction.) There’s a little permanent carnival, a skyride over the falls, a historic working carrousel in stellar condition, a splashpad which also manages to function as art, the world’s largest Red Flyer Wagon (which is also a slide), and a clock tower. It’s all relatively flat and there are many shady places to sit and think a bit and lots of signs with interesting notes about local history including the Spokani and tribes.

Manito Park & Botanical Gardens

First, how to get there without a car: (1) Go to the STA plaza, which is in the middle of town and surrounded by buses and signage and impossible to miss, so quit yer bellyaching about public transportation. (2) Get on the 44 with exact fare ($1.50) in hand. It doesn’t matter which 44 route you take. There are two 44 routes, but they go around opposite sides of the park, so whichever side you end up on, you can just pick up the other route on your way back. (3) Listen to the nice, clear announcements, and when you hear the one for Manito Park, pull the cords to request a stop. (4) Get off and enjoy the free and breathtaking park! If you’ve ever seen more roses or dahlias in one place, please tell me where so I can go there. A bit of strategy for you: the Nishinoyima Garden is on the Bernard St. route and is generally considered the back of the park. The Park Bench Café is on the Grand Ave. side. So you might plan which route you take where such that you end up at the café when you’re hungry. Either way, in between you’ll find incredible roses, wonderful dahlias, a gorgeous perennial garden, a massive formal European-style garden, and (if you don’t go on a Wednesday when they’re spraying pesticides) a conservatory which is presumably as impressive as the rest. (We went on a Wednesday, so that bit was closed.) The gardens are by and large very well populated with signs identifying the various plants for ease of copycatting their designs at home. We walked through good chunks of the gardens and had a leisurely lunch in less than two hours, which is important to note for transportation reasons: the $1.50 fare gets you a 2-hour pass, so if you still have time on that pass when you head back, you don’t have to pay a second fare. Bam! You’ve been hit with a knowledge stick.

Huntington Park

So you’ve done the Riverside Park and you want a chance to get completely winded. No problem. When you get to the Bloomsday statue (all the runners, it’s a local thing involving an annual fitness-oriented celebration of lilacs and the statue features a diverse pack of runners…including kids and a wheelchair racer—I told you these folks are almost creepy in their profound delightfulness), instead of going right or across the grass, go straight and left after City Hall. This will take you down to a view of the larger falls and the dam system and some more lovely landscaping and stunning rock formations. The only downside is that it’s steep and eventually you have to drag your butt back up it (if you’re unlucky like us, you’ll be lapped by a high school track team RUNNING up and down the hill while you’re praying for a quick death), but they do have switchbacks and steps and benches to make it more manageable if you’ve got time and are sufficiently divorced from your dignity. Or you can cough up the dough to take the skyride thing–that’s where it runs.

Coeur D’Alene Park

First of all, just say it with me. Cour dalaine. I’m just going to sit here repeating it to myself until someone gives me a funny look because I love the way it sits on my tongue. Other than the name, though, I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to find it—it’s in Browne’s Addition, away from the downtown area, and is very much a functional park for walking your dogs and small children. The gazeboish thing at the center is lovely, though, and if you (cough, cough, good job me) fail to plan your time appropriately and end up in Browne’s Addition an hour before the NWMAC opens, it’s two blocks up along Maple St. and a nice place to sit with a book. OR…you could just wander around the neighborhood. The architecture and landscaping are completely worth a wander, especially if you happen to be keeping company with someone who has a degree in architectural design and a good eye for the particularly unusual details in old houses.

Feed some starving local creatives

Auntie’s Bookstore

Okay, yes, maybe going into a bookstore when you’re at a literary convention is a good way to end up with more books than the airline will let you check in your suitcase. Whatever. Auntie’s is a local icon, and it’s phenomenal. It also had a few things that the convention was lacking: postcards and a robust section on local history. It’s also got tons of used books, conveniently organized right alongside the new books in easy to peruse section. And character out the wazoo—one more awesome place making great use of a refurbished historical building.

Pottery Place Plus

Right next to Auntie’s is a coop shop for local artists. It’s mostly pottery, as the name implies, so not a ton that’s ideal for bringing home in a suitcase BUT…they ship! So bring your Christmas club money, get your holiday shopping done, and have your purchases waiting cheerfully on the doorstop for you when you get home! There’s also a good bit of jewelry, some unique magnets, and plenty of local nature photography and prints. The way the coop works is that artists take turns running the counter, so you can always get someone talking about their work and why they love it.

Get cultured like yogurt

Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (NWMAC, like you’ve all been waiting for, or the MAC in local parlance)

Salmon statue at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Admission is $10 for adults usually, but Spokane has a First Friday thing too, and if you happen to be in town for a First Friday, admission is free. The exhibits running while we were there where 100 Stories for the Centennial (perfect backdrop for a con that was themed around stories!), which has components inside the museum and out. Fun tidbit: Did you know that Bing Crosby and Benny Goodman both took formative career steps in the Spokane jazz scene? (Did you even know that Spokane had a jazz scene? Bam! Knowledge stick!) The eclectic mix of art and history paints an interesting overall tale of the area, which was boosted by the selection of local artists showcased in a parallel display. And the museum was running a book sale at their gift shop with a massive and eclectic collection of little books of local art and history for $1…seriously, I am going to have to set at least a novella in Spokane to justify everything I picked up.

Mobius Science Center

Thumbs up to every city with a kids’ science museum! We didn’t go here ourselves (adults with no kids get funny looks wandering around places that are designed for kids, sadly), but the Mobius people came to the con on Super Science Saturday! I enjoyed some massive exploding foam, a lift demonstration in the form of a toilet paper thrower (party over here!), some fun with a van de Graaff generator, and a glowing pickle…and I only caught one of their shows. I bet the center itself has a wealth of awesome learning opportunities of the sort that inspire future geeks of America to join us in our mad science. MWAHAHAHA. (ahem)

Stonerose Interpretive Center & Eocene Fossil Site

This place is technically not in Spokane and technically I didn’t go there, but I did enjoy their display at the con and wish I could have made it, so let’s count it. This is an active dig site for Eocene Epoch fossils consisting mostly of plants, insects, and some fish. If you had asked me last week what I though of flora fossils, I might have shrugged, but the level of detail you can see in the fossils made by these incredibly fragile bits of nature that were around 48 million years ago is captivating. Did I mention you get to dig up fossils and keep a few too? Cuz ya do.

Lay your weary head to rest…

Which Davenport is on first?

I only walked through parts of one of the ten thousand different Davenport something or other hotels, but my review is: lush. Aside from that, I have two comments on the Davenport hotels. (1) Good luck figuring out which one you’re staying at. (2) The first one was built by a waffle magnate. Bam! Knowledge stick again. You’re welcome. Again.

Hotel Ruby 2

Art outside the Ruby2

(Seriously, are there any uniquely named hotels in this town? So confusing.) I was initially a little wary of staying here because (1) the name conveys a very rent-by-the-hour business model, which does not imply clean and safe, and (2) it was way too cheap too seem like a safe and clean place to stay. I booked everything on the late side, however, so it was the only con-affiliated place left, and it did have both the con stamp of approval and decent Yelp reviews, so I rolled the dice. Sevens all the way, baby. I would have been less afraid of eating off the floors there than off the plates in some restaurants, it was that clean. The exterior windowsills got wiped down EVERY DAY. The beds were comfortable (and apparently the exact ones used in one of the Davenports where the rooms are about five times as expensive). There was a solid continental breakfast—nothing fancy, but fresh enough for me and plenty of it, and hella good coffee, for a continental. I have paid more to stay in worse places. The biggest drawback is that it is motel style and opens towards a working railroad track, so it’s not dead quiet, but I didn’t find the clacking of the cars on the rails to be disruptive of my sleep. The walk over to the convention center is 15 minutes if you meander through the park, 10 if you hoof it directly on the streets.

The State of Fandom is Inclusive

I knew that coming to Sasquan (aka SmokeCon, aka WorldCon 2015, the con put on by the World Science Fiction Society, which administrates the Hugo Awards) would be interesting, but having never attended any kind of con before, I didn’t know quite what flavor of interesting to expect. The opening ceremonies, which began with a song and stories from some of the local tribes (Spokani, Nez Perce, and Plateau, I think, but I may have misheard, so please correct me if you know better). The theme that the conference organizers talked about was stories and how they bring us together, because whether we use art, words, or costume, we’re all telling stories which, fanciful or not, hit at the heart of something about what it means to be human. The storyteller (someone who took better notes – do you know what his name was? I’m having trouble finding it) ended his piece with asking questions that he didn’t want his listeners to answer right away because it is a sign of respect among his people to demonstrate that you’re taking the question seriously by saying, “Let me think about it.”

I’ve been doing a lot of listening this week, and a lot of thinking about the stories and questions I’ve heard, and I would like to tell you what the Fandom and its con look like to me as a new member.

The line between fans and creatives is somewhere between blurred and non-existent.

I’m not just talking about the way congenial superstars (like George R. R. Martin) wander the halls admiring costumes and graciously letting fans thank them for their work. I’m also, and maybe even mostly, talking about the way that fans love each other and lift each other up and honor fan art and fiction and commentary for the value that it has in giving well-loved works an even bigger presence in the community. People who have done the often invisible work of simply going out of their way to make new fans feel welcome and included get the same affectionate praise as the creators of the most popular art.

The “Imagi-Nation” works hard to figure out how better to make everyone welcome.

Diversity and cultural appropriation – two sides of the same coin – were taking up a lot of space at the con, which made me happy, because I wrestle with these concepts in my own writing. I had some wonderful conversations with many people about how to write about people who are different from ourselves without either stealing from their beliefs or representing them only as Other, and while I have so vastly much to say on this that I will probably return to it in multiple future posts, the clear trends that emerged were (1) do as much research on the culture you want to write about; (2) support creatives from minority cultures and boost their signal to give them room to be heard; and (3) we just generally need morefrogs and dogs and bears and chickens and whatevers. (Thanks to the inimitable Tex Thomspon and Kermit the Frog for that connection – the point being that the more you have of any particular group, the easier it is to represent the group as itself diverse and fully human.) The level of diversity is imperfect, but everyone seems to know it and care about actively making it better.

The only intolerable thing is intolerance itself.

You may recall that the Hugo nomination process this year was attacked by trolls disguised as puppies. A flame war commenced (which makes it oddly appropriate for the con to have be re-named SmokeCon, given the air quality levels that were as bad as they’ve been since Mt. St. Helen erupted in 1980, as Washington faces a national emergency). Names were called on both sides, people threw things: shit got ugly. I’ve got a little more perspective on the fight after attending the con, and I think that the reason the sad/rabid puppies got upset is because the Hugos are a tradition of a community that historically does engage not only with the works, but with the people who create those works. Creatives who do not respect the community rules of non-judgmental inclusiveness really aren’t all that welcome, and much of the ideological divide that separates folks who are overlooked from folks who make the awards has to do with the divide between inclusiveness and intolerance. I’m sure there are awards where the beliefs and attitudes of a creative are not primary criteria for judging the work, but with the Hugos, they matter. That’s the nature of this community of fans coming together to celebrate their mutual love of science fiction, and honestly, the environment that this principle engenders is like snuggling with a kitten while drinking hot chocolate in the middle of a snowstorm, so I can only say that I’m pleased to have found my way here.

Speaking of the Hugos…

For those of you who missed the livecast and aren’t inclined to watch the full ceremony, here’s the full list of winners…and let me share a very quick list of highlights from what was a very delightful event which I’m so pleased to have been there for:

  • Tananarive Due and a team of red shirts faced down Death. (Death, incidentally, was created by this IBM engineer named Kevin Roche who is both involved in bringing a quantum mechanics fueled leap to computing technology and one hell of a costumer.)
  • Robert Silverberg sang Hare Krishna with a tambourine and then got the entire audience singing with him. It was a thing.
  • Wesley Chu got political: he has announced his candidacy for the Republican party run for president of the United States. >D
  • Connie Willis was bitten by a bat and now thinks that Twilight is the best literature ever. Related: David Gerrold just about lost his shit laughing, which was a needed turnaround, because the memorial noting just how many friends and heroes the community lost in the last year was like being kicked in the chest by a mule. (This too was another lovely example of how fans and creatives are on egalitarian footing at WorldCon – longtime fans who passed away were named alongside well-known stars like Sir Terry Pratchett and Leonard Nimoy, and it’s clear they will be missed every bit as much, if not more.)
  • A dalek joined the MCs to present the dramatic presentation awards. I would not have thought a dalek capable of comic chemistry, but there you have it.
  • The Hugo for best novel was awarded by Dr. Kjell Lindgren, from the International Space Station.
  • The “No Award” option has been used five times in Hugo history. Last night, it was used for five different categories.
  • And most importantly, history was made as two translated works won awards, including best novel – a first for the Hugos, and one that I think points again to a community that cares about making space for diverse voices.

So these are some thoughts on WorldCon and the Hugos and this community in general, and generally speaking, I’m hoping I’ll be able to find my way to Kansas City in 2016 and Helsinki in 2017. This is only the very tip of the iceberg from the trip…I’ll be doing a series of posts following up on travelling in Spokane (which you had no idea you wanted to do, but trust me, you do) and some of the specific events and conversations and books I’ve been exposed to. (I’m going to try to post at least quick reviews of every book someone handed me for free, so this could take a while. “What do you mean my bag is overweight? It was fine coming out here.” Baggage officer unzips the suitcase and the airport is quickly buried in an avalanche of books. “Oh, right…”)

Alright, off to the airport. Safe travels, my beautiful tribe of glorious and good-hearted weirdos. :)


I am pleased as pie to be ready to introduce you to Phase 1 of my current Brilliantest of Plans: drumroll, please…Here is!

Um, okay. Why?

I am so glad you asked that question! A little less than a year ago, I published Autumn’s Daughter, along with a rambling manifesto of sorts (like I do) about why I chose to start with self-publishing instead of hunting around for an agent and a publisher. In the time since, I’ve made a few more writer connections, done some thinking, and come up with a list of things that I think are essential to keeping your head above the water as a writer in general, and especially as one who is sufficiently lacking in a sense of self-preservation to try publishing alone.

  1. Writer friends who are willing to exchange editing input on manuscripts because you all recognize that human brains are by and large incapable of effectively catching all the typos and plot holes in their own work.
  2. Writer friends who will eat pastries and drink coffee and sit at a table with you, working and filling you with the sort of guilt for not working that translates into getting work done.
  3. Writer friends who have more experience than you and are happy to point out resources and pitfalls to respectively exploit and avoid.

I have some absolutely magnificent long-distant friendships that serve these points and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. If you don’t have those people in your life, however, finding them online can be tough, so this endeavor got started when I was putting together my lesson plans for some writing workshops at the library and thinking about how being physically proximate to one another might be leveraged to help writers build a nice, supportive community for one another.

“Buy Local” is a big thing in Maine, and I imagine in a lot of places right now, and it occurred to me that, beyond just connecting writers to other writers, there are probably a lot of avid Maine readers who would love to give the books of Maine writers a try and a lot of local folks whose services (free-lance editing, cover design, etc.) would help writers produce a better book and a lot of local bookstores who are pushing Maine writers.

ReadMaine is my attempt to create a place for all of those people to connect.

How does it work?

I was completely serious about being in Phase 1. Right now, I’m just trying to build a database of Maine writers. As soon as I have a good number, I’ll start publishing listings, so the very first goal is just a quick and dirty author listings database. If you know any authors who have published something (self-published books and traditionally published short pieces in someone else’s collection count) and who live mostly in Maine, please either let me know who they are or encourage them to submit their info. (It’s all free and I intend to keep it that way–I’m a big fan of the philosophy that we all thrive when we work together to help each other out.)

What makes this site distinctive from some others out there, from what I can see, is that independently published authors are just as welcome as traditionally published. In fact, I would really love to see ReadMaine turn into an incubator of sorts to help Maine indie authors set the bar for what quality self-published work can look like, and if you have any ideas/energy for putting any of these long-terms goals into action, please do let me drag you into a “leadership role.” :)

If You Give a Troll a Pointless Fixation…

Okay, Internet, you win. I quit. I’ve weathered lots of ridiculous collective fixations on things that are not nearly as important or interesting as just about anything else that’s happening in the world, but I am done with Dinergeddon. DONE. STOP IT. STOP TALKING ABOUT IT.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. We all love an excuse to morally lynch people who were participants in events we didn’t get to witness in person. And folks who don’t know the value of a good “no comment” sure as heck feed the fire. In this case, the fire is heating up a battleground between people with kids (we have the right to eat wherever we want and those soulless people with no children can’t say boo to us!) and people without kids (we have the right to not be accosted with the noise and stickiness of children and their inconsiderate parents who accuse us of having meaningless lives without knowing us!). It’s the dining equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru: there just isn’t a right answer. So this is what I have to say to you people who keep clogging up my normally interesting news channels with this combative pettiness…

Seriously. Being a person is hard. It’s hard to cope with aggravation, it’s hard to manage the aggravation of kids. It can be hard to cope with the fact that you’re a grown person stuck in the company of squawking, pre-lingual delivery vectors for some truly foul bodily fluids for an obscene amount of time. It can be hard to be confronted by a stridently vocal reminder that you don’t, for any number of reasons, participate in a ubiquitous piece of the human experience that is defined by rearing your progeny. And it can be especially hard to be a kid with no autonomy to walk away from whatever’s making you upset, which includes (but is not limited to) adults and their bizarre ability to skip second breakfast and naptime and elevenses and second naptime. (How we grown-ups all routinely make it from breakfast to lunch with no naps and maybe one snack at most? Now that’s a topic worth jawing around.) So let’s just agree that we could all use a little compassion, okay? And maybe either find a new bone to chew to blood-drawing shards or keep the chewing habits confined to private circles where they stand half a chance of being productive towards positive change.

I am begging you.

Just in case you’re soundly hung up on this thing and need a little inspiration to move yourself on down the road, here’s some fresh conversational fodder:

Science shows a potential link of ancestry between indigenous Australians and folks in the Brazilian Amazon, which turns out to have some fascinating possible implications.

Donald Trump involuntarily plays “Who wore it better?” with a bunch of random internet photos.

The American embassy is open in Cuba…which is fantastic, even if casual tourism isn’t quite open for Americans yet.

Amy Schumer plays a lovable jerk in Trainwreck which, for those of you who don’t pay attention to all the gender equality conversations, is cool.

And I’ll let this speak for itself:

This is, literally, the quickest possible skim of other things happening on the internet right now. I’m not even trying or delving into the tough and ugly stuff that’s hard to confront, and look what I found! Things that are way more useful and interesting conversation starters than Pointless Judgefest XVII: Marcy’s vs. the Toddler. More reading suggestions welcome. :)

Never Kiss Your Chickens

We added two new chickens to our little flock last week. Pique and Boo. They’re younger and smaller than the rest by a few weeks and it was like dropping a pair of seventh graders into a varsity locker rook after tearing them bodily from the comforting arms of their mother.

I felt like a complete jerk. Those poor girls were catatonic with fear and we just walked away. I worried about them all through the first night, sitting hard on that new parent instinct to poke sleeping babies to make sure they’re still alive. I managed to sit on it until 6 a.m., at which point I had to know if they had survived. I ran out to the coop in my flips and pajamas…

They were gone.


No…that couldn’t be right. I didn’t see any blood or bones or feathers and one thing I have learned about chickens is that they are wasteful eaters. No way did those bloody-thirsty, pocket-sized velociraptors manage to cannibalize two whole birds without a trace.


The bloody-thirsty, pocket-sized velociraptors: Robin, Monarch, Muppet-feet, Unlikely, Flappy, and Speedy.

Weasel? But that didn’t make much sense either. The other birds would have been injured or upset, right?

So did they get out? I checked both sides of the garden before I realized that the most likely point of escape was through the nesting box channel. The barn had been closed off, so they must just be hiding in the barn. I scanned high and low, peering into the hay under the rabbits for flashes of white.


An eerie sense of bafflement color my fear for my new birds. I stepped back and decided to feed the bunnies and consider the problem, give my brain a few more minutes to wake up.

A flash of movement caught my eye as I pulled hay from the rack and there was Boo, perched in the tight little space between the feed tray and the coop post. My heart flipped over an I just couldn’t stop my hands from reaching in to pick her up…which scared the poop out of her, which incited her to protest, which drew down the wrath of Muppet-feet, who quickly orchestrated the explosion of Angry-Rooster-Palooza, leaving me no choice but to pull Boo out of the coop before my freaked idiot roosters could peck her to pieces.

I put her into a nest box, still seeing no sign of Pique, and hustled to get the pop hole open for Dumb-dumbs #1-6, aka Robin, Speedy, Monarch, Flappy, Muppet-feet, and Unlikely. Blessedly lacking the predatory focus of velociraptors, they rushed the door and settled into eating grass as if the mad panic at the alien invasion had never happened.

I went back inside to make sure Boo could get to food and water unmolested and there she was: with Pique. The two were snuggled together on the ramp landing. I still have no idea where Pique had squirreled herself away.


Pique and Boo, in another of their favorite snuggle spots.

After having them for a full week, I think I have to say that Boo is short for Boodini. We went to camp for a few days, and when we got back, she was outside of the coop, just hanging out in the barn…which is fortunately more tightly sealed than the coop itself, so we didn’t loose her. That time.

Last night, however, Boo flew the coop. We had fixed the spot we assumed she had snuck out through, but apparently she’s still little enough to squeak through some pretty small spots because she was roosting on top of the nest boxes when I went down to close them up for the night. And, because the barn was not yet closed up, when she flew away from me in terror, she ended up OUTSIDE.

This might have been a manageable situation if the cats hadn’t been outside with me, but life is what it is, and Lyra managed to terrify Boo into fleeing into the woods, where we quickly lost track of her in the ferns and stream that runs under a mass of dead leaves and tree roots. After a solid forty minutes of searching, John and I had to admit that we weren’t going to find her…and her chances of surviving were not great. It just about broke my heart to go inside, but I didn’t see what else I could do, aside from leave the garden gate open so she could get at the outdoor feeder if she found her way back.

My night was not fantastic–I kept waking up from dreams about Pique being mauled by the other chickens without Boo’s protection, or of Boo trying to get into the coop frantically while running away from something horrible with teeth and a fondness for chicken nuggets. So, once again, come 6 a.m., I flip-flopped out to the barn and my pajamas…and there she was. In the garden. Attacking the closed pop hole with manic terror as I shut the garden gate and went over to let her rejoin the others.

The degree to which I worry over these stupid chickens is maybe an indicator that I’m not cut out for the anxiety that comes with being responsible for fragile little lives. All the same, I have not forgotten that these particular fragile little lives are also filthy little salmonella-incubators, so from one crazy chicken lady to the rest of my fellow backyard chicken owning weirdos: don’t forget to NEVER kiss your chickens.

Extra, Extra

I love getting the local paper. I don’t know if I’ve ever derived a useful piece of information from it, but there’s something cozy about living in a place where the news is dominated by the achievements of high school students and bean suppers.

Oh yes, you heard me right. Bean suppers. There are four separate bean or spaghetti or turkey supper listings in this latest addition.. You know what matters to my town? Knowing where to show up to eat with the community.

And the kids: Story after story about the kids who made the honor roll, the kids who volunteered their time to do something kind, the kids who excelled in the arts and athletics and academics. The kids who joined the military. The kids who are getting married. The kids who have been lost to some awful tragedy. The kids who have traveled across the world and brought their stories and pictures back for the entire town to learn from.

There’s another page, too, of course: the police arrest log. If anyone were to dig into half of these entries, there’s probably some compelling reading in there. People get busted for sex and drugs and violence like anywhere else and the information is there. And if a keen investigative reporter were to go digging, I’ll give you 10-1 odds that hiding somewhere in the town there are problems of the sort that crop up in a Stephen King novel. The existence of some hidden corruption in town officials or business leaders of influential citizens isn’t a bad bet: the same principle of psychology that makes people bad at making the more productive choice in the prisoner’s dilemma is that same principle that makes people take underhanded risks to give themselves a leg up from time to time, and I’m not so naive as to assume it’s not there just because no one is writing about it in the monthly paper.

This sets up an interesting question for me, from a writer’s perspective. I’m not a reporter for a really good reason: I find human interaction stressful under good circumstances, which means that I’m especially bad at confronting people when I need to push for information. But I did my time on the college paper and sat through many conversations about the role of the press in exposing problems and keeping people honest, so I look at the sunshine and rainbows of the town paper and wonder what it’s not saying. What unpleasant stories are they failing to tell? Should I be wishing that the paper was run by someone who was more up in arms about fixing whatever problems we don’t see? Am I guilty of turning away from the unpleasant truth when I’m glad to see page after page glowing with parental pride in the kindness and cleverness of the kids who have grown up running over the collective edge of our lawns with their bikes?


All the same, it’s nice to live in a place where we spend our print space on praising young people for what they’re doing well and planning to get together for baked beans and pie.

Farscape v TNG

Frelling Farscape

Can we talk Farscape please? For just a quick little minute?

What. the. frell.

I routinely come across Farscape memes among the geek set, and the respectable proportion of these recently had me thinking I had missed something, one geek to another. I love crazy sci-fi! Why, I wondered to myself, did I ever give up on a show full of awesome aliens, nifty world-building, and adorable cursing that combines crazy sci-fi with the glorious genius of the Henson Studios?

So I pulled out my all-access Netflix pass and jumped down the rabbit hole. For most of the first two seasons, I thoroughly enjoyed the sets, the costumes, the plots…maybe not Ben Browder’s shouty over-acting, but most of the rest of the show. And then they killed off Virginia Hey and things got weird. For whatever reason–make-up toxicity, politics, legitimate career offers for the better actors–Farscape never seemed to have much commitment to the status quo. And at some point, I’m pretty sure the writers were either perpetually high or just irresponsibly stoked about ignoring internal consistency (where in the uncharted territories did Chiana’s sudden onset visions come from?), but once season three got fully under way, it was like they were thoroughly committed to driving the viewers crazy right along with Crichton.

Oh. Right. THAT’S why I stopped watching the show.

I mean, my word, people. Reality on the other side of the wormhole did an complete tailspin to the degree that even having just watched four seasons in the space of a few weeks, I don’t think I could separate out the plot points that actually happened from the ones that occurred in an alternate reality/timeline/simulation or were hallucinated due to drugs/torture/illness/mind control/more drugs/holy dren the main characters spent a lot of time drugged out of their minds on this show for a really impressive range of reasons.

Let me draw you a little comparison:

Farscape v TNG

This is what we call impressionist graphing. I could map it out for you more thoroughly, but I’ve already lost four seasons of my life plus the time it took for me to write this rant, so I won’t. The point should be clear, however: messing with the realness of reality is like lemon pepper seasoning. It is delightful in small amounts, but should on no account be used to thickly batter an entire pan of chicken breasts. Enough is as good as too much.

Because I have more faith than is clearly merited in the internet and the geeks who dwell therein, however, I persevered through to the bitter end, certain that I was missing something, that all would come clear. I wasn’t hoping for much more than a Dorothy Gale waking up in her own bed moment (and you were there, and you…), but it was SO MUCH WORSE.

(Spoiler alert.)

The will-they/won’t-they champions of the century get engaged, very romantically, in a boat (which they got where, exactly?) and are then frozen by an alien weapon and shattered into a bazillion pieces leaving D’Argo screaming in horror as he watches, helpless to intervene.

And then the show was cancelled. The wrap-up was schlepped off onto a mini-series that I would have to pay actual money to get my hands on, and you know what? I can’t do it. I just can’t bring myself to spend the eight bucks to add that particular DVD to my collection, but more importantly, I can’t resign myself to the fact that I’m not done. I know this may seem like quitting with the finish line in sight, but in my mind, John Crichton and Aeryn Sun will forever be a beautiful pile of commingled flesh crystals sparkling in the sun as Ka D’Argo rages on.

Just trying to find a way to embrace the absurdity.

A Transformative Lie for December 16

Yesterday was my 30th birthday. It was a good one by any standard of birthday goodness, but especially by the measure of December-in-New-England birthdays. Neither weather nor flu nor holiday bustle cramped my ability to connect with people I care about in some genuinely lovely ways, and I felt spoiled rotten and enveloped by love all day long. For me, personally, it was a very good day, but…

December 16, 2014 was not a good day. It will be remembered by history, in fact, as a #BlackDay, because in Peshawar, 141 innocent people, 132 of them children, were slaughtered.

What possible justification for this pointless violence could be beggars the imagination. And in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown and the strangulation of Eric Warner by officers sworn to uphold public safety and the failure of grand juries to indict either of the officers responsible for their deaths in order to allow full trials to sort out what happened in each case, it’s clear to me that America has plenty to hang her head in shame for as well.

My news feeds are full of horror and injustice. If you buy the premise of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, things are better than they were (at least in terms of percentages of populations): humans are less violent than they once were and continue to be less violent. I am persuaded by his argument, but the fact that, by percentages, we’re less bloodthirsty than our ancestors does nothing to comfort the grieving families of Michael Brown or Eric Warner or any of the 141 victims in Peshawar. We have further to go. Much, much further.

And here’s the thing: we are capable of being better. So here’s the transformative lie that I’m going to tell, not to sweep the horrors under the carpet and not to forget our unforgivable sins for an instant, but to give us all a truth to aspire to: we are defined by the beauty and good we bring to the world.

So let’s consider other 16ths of December that have brought better things to the world.

1770: Ludwig van Beethoven was born. I would wager that even those of you who aren’t fans of classical music still recognize his name and probably hum certain of his melodies absentmindedly from time to time because his influence in western culture lingers on. And let’s talk about the drive to create beauty in adversity: Beethoven composed this beloved piece (and many others) after he had lost his hearing.

1775: Jane Austen was born. Austen is the master of the insult so refined that the victim would be apt to thank her for the compliment before realizing the intent. This knack for subversive humor is what makes me love her work: her social commentary was presented via the sort of romance novels popular for her day, and while one might not see anything quite resembling modern feminism in her plots, her commentary on both class and the ludicrous necessity of marriage for women to get by was and is an important voice in favor of a change we’re still working through. Also: she’s funny.

And because people can be lovely, all of her works (which are in the public domain), are available for free online.

1866: Wassily Wasilyevich Kandinsky was born. Kandinsky turned his back on a career as an attorney to pursue art. He left Russia to be free to practice art without the restrictions of communism-turned-fascist. He was one of the earliest artists to work with purely abstract forms.

I highly recommended perusing his work online too.

And let’s not forget Margaret Mead (1901), Arthur C. Clarke (1917), or Quentin Blake (1932), to name just a few fascinating people who were born on December 16th and made a positive, memorable impact on the world.

And then, the events…Charlie Chaplin signed with Keystone to start his beloved film career (1913). “Vortex” by Noel Coward (another Dec. 16 birthday, for that matter) premiered in London (1924). Gemini 6 returns to Earth and Pioneer 6 is launched into orbit (1965).  The insanely long version of “American Pie” we all collectively know enough parts of to sing the entire thing if we’re in a large enough group was released (1971).

I won’t lie. In looking for these events, I found a much longer list of tragedies and acts of violence. We are primed, I guess, to focus on the worst we have to offer as far as the histories are concerned. It’s understandable. We need to confront the violence and gross failures of justice to create change. But there is beauty and thoughtfulness and laughter and kindness to be had from humanity too and, I believe, as we fight for a better world, we must not think that art and science and kindness are anything less than our best weapons: if we want a better world, we need to be better ourselves. I believe that peace will come from cleverness and compassion, not the barrel of a gun. I believe that our best hope is to work harder at creating a world that understands on a gut level what a joy life can be when we are unutterably lovely to one another.

So…I have no answer, no solution, no explanation, no excuse for Peshawar, but while we slog forward, I will be doing my best to be kind and to add pleasant things to the world in hopes that it will, if nothing else, provide some small signal amplification for the reminder of what we have it in us to be.