A Monster Calls (if only!)

Cover of 'A Monster Calls' by Patrick Nss; monster striding through the darkness toward a house.My book club read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

I understand that this book has been made into a movie.  Pro tip: if you want me to remain totally ignorant about something, just make it into a movie.  Anyway, I had never heard of it and came to it with a clean slate.

I still can’t figure out what the monster’s stories were meant to indicate, or how the first two tied in with the boy’s situation, but overall this book was an easy read.  It probably just wasn’t aimed at me, I thought.  After all, I could guess what his dream was about from the first moment it was mentioned; this book was probably meant for people who either couldn’t or wouldn’t leap to that conclusion.

Thing is, though, the more days that have gone by since we discussed the book, the more I’ve been feeling maybe it was aimed at me.  Because (trying mightily to avoid spoilers, but why bother? Anybody who reads this blog will also jump to the correct conclusion within the first three pages of the book) once you step away from the specific issue in the book, the bigger problem of crap nobody will tell you about fills up all our lives.

Somebody resigned but nobody can tell you why because confidentiality.  This local business is unionizing, but nobody will confirm the reason because negotiations. That other one may be going under, but for them to admit that would be a self-fulfilling prophesy.  If negotiations go badly, this world leader will do thus and such — unless they’re just bluffing.  All the candidates agree on this policy, until they pivot after the primaries.

“You might say so, but I couldn’t possibly comment.” Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart; image from Wikimedia.

The more you look around, the more you see that you are surrounded, totally surrounded, by lies and secrets and things people aren’t allowed to say, think it’s unproductive to admit, believe you would react poorly to, are kindly protecting you from (and to be fair, even when they do cut the crap, you have trouble understanding or believing it.  Because communication is not all that, folks.  Your own brain does all that stuff to you, as well.)

I have a low, low tolerance for this sort of bullshit, even when I can see that it’s unavoidable.  That’s why I went into biology. In fact, it’s why I went into ichthyology.  I remember thinking to myself, some fifty years ago, that it would have to be either fish or insects because the higher vertebrates were too likely to lie to me.  And humans, well they were out of the question entirely.  There was no truth in them, including me.  You might as well just make stuff up for yourself as try to build on what humans told you.

By and large I still feel that way.  That’s why I divide a lot of my time between biology and making stuff up for myself.  Because if you let yourself get too invested in what people can or can’t, will or won’t tell you, pretty soon all you want is for it to be over already.

I guess that book really was for me, after all.

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Yes, I’m one of those people who ignore climate change articles

man screaming with caption, 'Care about my issue! Now!!!'

image modified from Crosa via wikimedia. Used under a Creative Commons license.

I read an article this morning about why people ignore climate change articles, no matter how horrific the predictions are.

I’m a big-time climate change article ignorer, even though I’m not skeptical about its existence at all, so I thought I could offer an explanation.  Of course we ignore those scary articles!  Becoming emotionally invested in something you cannot affect is a recipe for hopeless misery, and people who ask you to do it are not your friends.

If the people writing these scare pieces presented effective ways for us to make a difference, lots of us would be eager to cooperate. Instead, their idea too often seems to be to get the rest of us upset enough to do things — like devoting ourselves to political activism, or coming up with solutions — that they aren’t willing to do themselves. That means they are speaking from a position of helplessness to start with. What other message will their articles be able to convey?

Somebody once told me, ‘people won’t follow you because they don’t want to end up where you are,’ and that advice was never more relevant than when looking at these articles.  The last place I want to be is so upset about a looming catastrophe that I have to sit on my butt behind a computer trying to convince other people to devote their lives to fixing it.  (Plus, having an academic job in the current climate means I’m paid to endure that situation at work, so why would I do it for free in my spare time?)

In the latest scare article, Wallace-Wells says ‘What creates more sense of urgency than fear?’  The answer is, hope.  One Green New Deal proposal outweighs a thousand scare articles in motivating people to care about the issue. When you are actually doing something about an issue, rather than just trying to motivate other people to do something, you have this kind of hope to offer, and people are eager to sign on.

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Font Styles for Metallic Text in Word

samples of metallic text in gold and silverOnce upon a time, Microsoft Word was one of the best graphic programs out there IMO. I speak as a non-power user, who got Word free at my job.

Anyway, I could do everything I wanted/was able to do on Word, and one of the things I wanted was metallic text.  As is obvious from this blog’s header.

It must run in the family, because this week my brother asked me to make him something with metallic text; but I discovered that Word 2016 no longer had those automatic gradients that I had applied to Word Art with such unrestrained glee back in the day.  I was able to recapture them from some old files, however, and so I have created a Word document to house them in, and converted them to quick text styles.

Here’s the link to it, if you too are suffering bling withdrawal. It has text in shapes, regular text, and a few decorative odds and ends I’m working on. Feel free to save a copy and then you too will have all my metallic text and object fills as I accumulate them.

Microsoft is probably only trying to correct my aesthetic, but taste will out.


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Where are PhD Supervisors in the Conversation about Adjuncts?

Billboard 1944 Oak Ridge. Public Domain.

I’ve been in lots of online conversations about adjunctification, and somebody always asks why we keep producing more PhDs than the market will bear. The answer? Crickets.

I’ve just realized it’s a meaningless question — at least, the ‘we’ part of it. Because the people in those conversations aren’t the ones producing excess PhDs. In fact, talking as if this were a general problem of academia obscures the main issue; faculty who produce PhDs benefit from producing excess PhDs, while faculty who don’t produce PhDs are hurt by the production of excess PhDs.

One group of us is doing something that hurts another group of us, while we go on talking as if we were all in this together. We lump tenured faculty together, when one group of tenured faculty is causing the problem and the other groups are suffering from it. Then we argue for hours about what the second group can do about the problem, while the first group keep their mouths shut as if they have nothing of interest to contribute.

I’m tired of being told that ‘tenured faculty’ should solve the adjunctification crisis by meeting, communicating, complaining, educating parents, arguing with administrators, etc. etc. — as if ‘tenured faculty’ were a meaningful category in this problem.  We need to hear from PhD-producing faculty. We need to hear how, and when, they are going to reduce the number of students they supervise. And if they’re not, we need to know why not, and learn about those constraints.

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Acts and Omissions by Catherine Fox

Cover of Acts and Omissions by Catherine FoxIf Susan Howatch and Miss Read wrote a book together, it would probably be like this. Take the sorts of problems Howatch’s clergy face, and the same level of Close inside baseball, and cross it with short-chapter English countryside cozy, and here you have it… so cozy, in fact, that at first I wasn’t sure the author had a plot in mind rather than a sweet, meandering ‘Year In…’

But Acts and Omissions has a plot with plenty of surprises in it, though some of the entanglements its characters fell into were predictable and I never did figure out why everybody loved Freddie, who I found terribly tiresome.  Obviously people needed to help Freddie, and they were all professional christians so I could see why they would stiffen the upper lip and do it, but why did so many of them love him? Well, he will apparently be back in the next volume and I may figure it out then.

The characters I did love were Archdeacon Voldemort, Professor Jane, and Bishop Bob.  How can you not admire a professor who, when almost hit by a car on a one-way street, kicks in its door?  Or a courtship carried on by hostile gifs and youtube links? Then there are Father Wendy and Father Dominic, who I am so afraid the author intends to entangle in Freddie’s snares in the second volume.

I’m a big fan of Authorial Voice, and this is a gold mine for Voice junkies.  Fox doesn’t use Omniscient so much as Capricious. She sets up arbitrary rules for the story and comments on them every time they constrain the narrative and/or are ignored because they constrain the narrative.  She denies or reaffirms readers’ apparent expectations about the plot, and stops the action when it becomes obvious that we need another lecture in Anglican 101. Nor does she fail to tell us everything we need to know about the characters, bit or otherwise, as they pop up.  Reading something like this, after a long long era of tight third or first-person, is like taking your shoes off and stretching out on the couch.

So once again, I’ve bought the rest of the series. At extremely reasonable kindle prices.

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A Philistine Reads About Art

I’ve read too many fantasy books about artists recently and it has left me with a tendency to slam things down on the table and shout ‘Bullshit!’ at intervals, which was not a good way to begin mandatory inservice at my job… but that’s another story. To proceed:

Fantasy authors who write about art are pretty certain to be in favor of it. So the books I read presented art as a vital source of deep insight and mystical power, the key to solving the problems of humans and faerie alike, yadda yadda, and after a thousand pages or so of this I began to ask myself ‘What vital purpose have these authors achieved with their art? What problems of humans and faerie alike have they solved with it? What have they done that authors of the past didn’t do in their spare time, after completing jobs that really made a difference in the world?”

I really like art, don’t misunderstand me, and all that kept me out of it in my youth was the complete lack of representational art in the art department at my alma mater.  I follow artists’ blogs and go to galleries.  My old grad school letters are more full of plots for unwritten novels than of anything to do with my research, and as recently as fifteen years ago I was still considering a program in scientific illustration. But I’m also prone to questions like this, which is why it’s a good thing I picked science over art when I chose my major. And it’s a good thing that I ended up in a job where I teach pathophysiology to nurses, rather than the ichthyology/ evolutionary biology position I was aiming at, which would have had very similar weak spots. It’s even better luck that I ended up in an outcomes-based curriculum, where my desire not to waste students’ time with a single thing they will not actually use is an asset.

Perhaps that’s why I have such a strong negative reaction to these books; they give me the shivers, making me realize what a close call I’ve had and how easily I might have ended up in a career I felt defensive about.

One of my main goals in life is to not do things I have to feel defensive about, so asking me to enter imaginatively to the life of someone in that position is setting yourself up to be judged harshly, by high standards. This issue is an important one to me. I do not welcome frivolous, predetermined, self-serving depictions of it. If an author is going to raise it, raise it! Give me an honest discussion of the strongest arguments against your position and the well-supported reply that I would need to be able to give myself every morning as I looked in the mirror, if I had gone into the arts. Otherwise, why bring it up at all?


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Theory Towers

view down a street to two tall stone towers

Towers of Bologna

Over the years I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with theory.


  • theory is powerful, for explanation and prediction and actually doing stuff
  • theory is distancing, both requiring and allowing you to set your emotions aside for a while
  • theory puts things in perspective, demanding that you look at more than your own individual feelings or experiences
  • theory is rigorous, highlighting inconsistencies


  • theory is inadequate, never catching all the details
  • theory is manipulable; there are enough data out there for anybody to build a theory supporting any conclusion
  • theory is rigid, not welcoming alternative explanations
  • theory is reductive, ignoring individuals in favor of categories
  • theory usually leads to nonsense, if carried far enough
  • theory is often a substitute for original thought

I guess the best simile I know for theory is the tower. One builds up and up and gets a wider view, but what will one do with that view? Paint landscapes, see people in need and go down to help them, or plan conquests? Will one live up in the tower, happily removed from the mess below? Will one get the god’s eye view so horrifically described in my least favorite pop song: From a distance, we all look like friends? Or will one identify a landscape full of deplorables?

Or, as time goes on, will one be more and more busy defending that tower, both against outsiders who want to get in and against folks who want to take its bricks and build something of their own with it? I hang out in a conservative christian space online, and get to see people hunkered over their one or two remaining bricks, snarling at the world.

What really has me thinking about theory is that our school has become a Hispanic-Serving Institution, so we start the year with discussions of what demographic categories our students fall into. But for me, one advantage of being an HSI is that we have enough latina students that they display variety and I can get beyond viewing them as examples of a category. Theory demands that its authors have categories and generalizations, but my job is to get past those and meet my students as individuals. Isn’t that the goal for almost all of us?

I was raised to think that categorizing people by race or ethnicity was wrong. I have the same reaction to it that some people have to discussions of humans as animals, probably for many of the same reasons. But just as physiologists must view humans as animals to construct our theories, social scientists probably must categorize them by race and ethnicity to build theirs. A lot of the world’s work must be done up in those towers.

Thing is, is that work fit for public consumption? Or are we folks up in the towers corroding ourselves with concepts and actions and theories that should not be inflicted on the body politic? Scientists have always done things you shouldn’t try at home, and often enough they have been poisoned by those activities – poisoned physically or morally. Someone who has spilled sulfuric acid on themselves or performed a vivisection has been changed in ways we don’t want the general populace to be changed.

Does this apply to social science theorizing, as well? Is thinking about people as categories necessary but corrosive?

Dissection table, University of Bologna

When I was in Italy, I spent a day in Bologna visiting their old dissection room, where the public might be invited to watch disassembly of cadavers. We no longer see that as good clean fun. One day, we may feel the same about 90% of the current theoretical dissection of humanity.

Bologna also contains a bunch of tall, tall towers, built by individual families for nobody knows what.  There used to be more; they were built during a time of war, and most have been torn down and abandoned.  We can only hope.

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Ghost Drum by Susan Price

I would say it’s rare for me to read the first in a series and then go immediately and buy the rest of the series, but it’s not. However, that won’t keep me from saying good things about Ghost Drum! Shout-out to James Nicoll, whose series of posts about 1970s women SFF writers clued me in to this series.

I’m a fan of the fairy-tale voice in fantasy. That is, I like a fantasy that stands its ground, that doesn’t explain its characters and their motivations in the current vernacular, that requires me to step into its world rather than shoe-horning itself into mine. Else what’s the point of fantasy? So this book, with its story told by a talking cat, was just to my taste from the very first sentence. A cat, after all, has a rather remote view of people and their inner lives.

While this is a straight-out fairy tale, full of shamans with walking huts, ghosts, ice-apples, shape-changing and magic of all sorts, it’s also full of cold winter nights and even colder hearts. People are killed and mistreated a lot in this story, and folks attracted by the smooth, clear prose and the fairy-tale feel may be shocked by that. I was! The cat telling the story doesn’t care about such things, though. Its voice is the voice of reportage, which keeps a distance between us and the suffering.

Coincidentally, my book club read and greatly enjoyed another fantasy set in Russia this past year – The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. What struck me most about that book was the conflict between christianity and the villagers’ folk religion, and the main character’s fascinating relationship with the nature around her. None of that shows up in Ghost Drum, though they share many details of setting.  Ghost Drum drew a great deal more on Sami (then called Lapp) culture for the magic of its shamans, but there was not a touch of folk religion in it — no arcane creatures or woodland spirits, though the main character had one very interesting interaction with the animals of the woods.  Its story of czars and czarinas, palaces and chicken-legged huts, felt more like a chapter from the Arabian Nights.

The biggest difference, however, is that Ghost Drum is not a coming-of-age-story. Children grow up in their sleep in Ghost Drum. The book is not at all interested in how they decide what they are going to be; in fact, nobody in this culture gets to decide that. Babies’ fates are chosen for them before they are old enough to squeak. Nobody in Ghost Drum, except the mother in the first chapter, has any chance to question or rebel. Ironically, that makes society’s strictures a smaller plot point in Ghost Drum than they are in The Bear and the Nightingale. 

Is that unrealistic? Certainly, though perhaps not as much as I would wish. But the cat narrator of Ghost Drum does not care. All that maturing and thinking and feeling and judging and trying to decide where one fits into one’s culture would get in the way of the story, the cat seems to think, and I can’t argue. The story itself rips along, a seamless carpet of wonders carrying us through a new but familiar-feeling magical world, and — as I am wont to do — I’ve already purchased all the sequels.


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Night Calls by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

Night Calls coverBecause I missed the sale, Cat Kimbriel was kind enough to send me a free copy of Night Calls with no strings attached – but since I devoured it in a day and enjoyed every minute, it deserves a review!

I love stories about hill folk and folk magic, as well as wild food and pioneer crafts, so I was primed to enjoy the story of this frontier girl coming into her magic and dealing with a variety of the supernatural dangers that followed immigrants into the country. It was just the right mix of homely, cozy and horror.  The horror was well enough done to make me wonder at one point (late at night) how people who believed in such things managed to sleep through the night in their isolated cottages, which means it brought me into the characters’ mindset. That’s what I value most in fiction, so I was extremely pleased!

I was anxious to pick the book up again first thing this morning and read to the satisfying conclusion, and as soon as I closed the file I purchased the two sequels. Thanks, Cat, for the book and for the fun I anticipate in reading the sequels, and thanks Deborah Ross and Book View Cafe for the review that pointed me toward it!

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It’s Just Too Hard to Learn, I Guess

"Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to sit by helplessly as other people repeat it."

Cartoon by Tom Toro

I have the nicest, most analytic and open-minded set of online friends possible, but there is one topic on which I can always start an argument with someone. All I have to do is post something against demonizing groups of people.

The arguments are always the same.

  • “But group X is doing bad things.”
  • “I don’t mean everyone in group X.”
  • “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking about the other people in group X.”
  • “If you choose to be offended when I didn’t mean you, that’s your problem.”
  • “Group X is in power.”
  • “Group X is privileged, and now you’re saying we shouldn’t even complain about them!”
  • “Sure, ‘not all X’.”
  • “You should be mad at the people who claim to be group X and give it a bad name, not at those of us who point it out.”

I’m in education, and an issue I have to deal with every day is transferability. That is, will a student who learns a skill in my class, in one situation, be able to transfer it to another class with a different situation?

If there’s any skill we all should have learned by now, from one example after another, it’s to not demonize demographic groups. But instead of treating this as a general rule or transferrable skill, we too often act like beginning students – the kind who can triple a brownie recipe, but can’t see that tripling a batch of 30% saline involves the same principle.

So we learn that demonizing jews turned out badly.

And then we learn that demonizing African Americans turned out badly.

And then we learn that demonizing Native Americans turned out badly.

And then we learn that demonizing gays turned out badly.

And then we learn that demonizing poor people turns out badly.

And THEN we learn that demonizing muslims turns out badly…

I was bored with this about ten years ago. Am I the only person who sees a general principle? Am I the only person who WANTS to see a general principle, learn it, and get on with my life?

“But WHY? Why can’t I do it with just this one group that really, REALLY deserves it?”


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