A Common Reader Question: How Do You Deal With Cretaceous Shales?

Every once in awhile I do try to use the geology I've been reading about to inform the geography or daily life of a story. So far I have not been particularly successful, so maybe I should take some geologic phenomenon and build a story, or at least an incident, around it.

A dramatic stormy image of Factory Butte, where I have not yet been

A dramatic stormy image of Factory Butte, where I have not yet been

I like to hike the canyon country of the American Southwest. I usually end up there every other year, sometimes a bit more often.

Much canyon country is colorful, sandstones and limestones in a wide range of reds and yellows. But much of this beauty is invisible from roads, except from scarce overlooks.

That's because, in various periods of the Colorado Plateau's geologic history, it was covered by shallow inland seas that deposited the silts that eventually turned into shales. And the last great period of inland sea was in the late Cretaceous (~100 - 65 million years ago), which deposited the Mancos Shale, which is dark because it contains a lot of organic matter as well as silt

The Mancos erodes to form wide, flat tablelands, easy to build towns and roads on. But much of this landscape is gray and relatively uninteresting. But when it rains, things can get sticky.

Paved roads are fine in all weathers. The problem with the soil that forms from shale is that it turns into muck when wet, what the locals call "gumbo". A cloudburst turns a dirt road into a gray, greasy terror in just a few minutes.

I remember when we climbed out of Escalante Canyon a couple of years ago. It had started raining in the morning and by the time we made the steep climb out and walked across the rock to our car, the road was a nightmare. We had to give up a proposed side trip to a side canyon to get out safely, after a long, sliding, perilous drive.

At the end we met a lovely German woman with a huge amount of blond hair piled on her head who bemoaned the fact that she had not been able to get out to Spooky Gulch, one of the places we had considered going. The way she said those two words, "Spooky Gulch", made it clear that she thought this one of the most delightful places she'd ever heard of. It is a wonderful hike (I took my family there a few years ago), and I'm sorry she had to miss it.

In Robert Fillmore's The Geology of the Parks, Monuments, and Wildlands of Southern Utah he details the geology of a drive north from Hanksville to Capitol Reef National Park. At one point (Mile 10.9 to be exact) he says:

Soon after we enter the gray shale expanse, a well-maintained gravel road heads north, toward the landmark of Factory Butte and farther to the San Rafael Swell. Unlike most roads through Cretaceous rocks of the southwest, this one is quite good because it follows the bench of stable Ferron Sandstone rather than cutting across the shale.

Aside from the fact that I have long wanted to spend some time in the San Rafael Swell, this is the kind of precise geologic detail I would love to work into fiction. Places where a dirt road is harder or easier to drive when wet might seem the result of chance, but really have a cause in the pattern of long forgotten seas.

Have you ever noted the effect of geology on the events in your life?

No, I have never used this question on a first date.

More Threats to Our Mental Cohesion

Like anyone else who works at a desk, I spend some of my goofing off time reading articles on how to improve my productivity. Some of the other time I spend reading articles on how to do the thing I'm supposed to be doing, rather than actually doing it.

Advice is always easier to accept from a faceless homunculus

Advice is always easier to accept from a faceless homunculus

But I also see headlines for articles telling me that I am doomed for various reasons, and I usually don't read those. I see pieces telling me how devastating Twitter or Facebook or just checking things on your phone is, and how I am doomed. I am not on Twitter, I find Facebook unbearably dull, and don't participate in much of any online community, and have no social apps on my phone. I will sometimes check if a new podcast has shown up in my feed.

I see articles telling me how everyone is fat, or sitting too much, or has metabolic syndrome. I also see articles on how exercise is good for your brain, or depression, or some other thing.

Of course exercise is good, and so you should do it. Of course being fat is bad, and you should not do that. I know this is controversial in some circles, and I intend to write about the rage such seemingly anodyne advice can arouse. But not now.

So I read articles on how being organized and getting things accomplished is good, and applaud the sentiments, and don't actually do those things. I don't read articles on how staying off social media and exercising instead is good, because I actually do those things.

So our content is consumed by those people who are least likely to act on what we have to say. Even good advice can be consumed as a substitute for actually taking it.

That's actually kind of weird. Most of the advice isn't fake, it's real. These really are things that you might do to improve your productivity, or lose weight, or make friends, or live a longer healthier life, or whatever.

But reading about them removes the urge to do anything about them.

My conclusion? You should read more fiction. That's like reading advice given to people who don't actually exist. What could be better than that?

That is today's PSA.

What advice do you consume rather than acting on?

And do you think the people who produce that advice actually expect anyone to take it?

Science and Romanticism

It is kind of a cliche that the Romantics disliked science, because it drained the enchantment from everything.

This was never really true, though William Blake did not particularly care for Newton, or for physics. Newton was eccentric and unmanageable in a completely different way than Blake was eccentric and unmanageable, and you know how much unmatching eccentrics despise each other, because of the way their finials and iridescent wings bang against each other. But aside from uncaring quiddity of Newton himself, Blake hated and feared a mechanistic universe, nothing but billiard ball atoms banging against each other.

William and Caroline Herschel, though I suspect mirror grinding and tea drinking really don’t mix

William and Caroline Herschel, though I suspect mirror grinding and tea drinking really don’t mix

But Blake is a bad example. Everyone in his own time thought he was weird, and he became a Romantic only retrospectively, within the calm quads of Academe, long after he was around to object to his ivied imprisonment.

The actual celebrities of the Romantic era were intelligent men and women, and such are always fascinated by discovery, and that was the time of great discovery. The only small-r romantics that say they dislike science are actually obscurantists who are too lazy to reconsider poorly thought-through hypotheses about the world around us. Many people think something dumb and defend it by saying it is romantic, or mysterious, or inspiring. We don't hang out with those people, and, since their opinions are more or less random, we don't need to dispute with them.

In The Age of Wonder the noted biographer of Romantics, Richard Holmes, tells a huge number of entertaining stories about the botanist Joseph Banks, the astronomer William Herschel and his talented and devoted little sister Caroline (literally little, a sprite of less than five feet tall), the solitary and determined explorer Mungo Park, the chemist Humphry Davy and his brilliant assistant, successor, and eventual competitor, the eccentric William Faraday, and William Herschel's son John Herschel, among many others.

Beauty and Terror

The subtitle of the book is "How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science", and Holmes, a literary biographer rather than a science writer, gives a great sense of that, of personality, ambition, eccentricity, and obsession.

Everyone is more or less tied together through Joseph Banks. After his early adventures in the South Seas he became a kind of impresario of science, identifying and promoting talent, finding funding, providing opportunities, and being a fan and cheerleader.

A Bad Scientific Holiday

Aside from the comet-spotting Caroline Herschel, whom I got kind of a crush on, my favorite characters were Humphry Davy, his beautiful socialite wife Jane, and the awkward working-class genius Faraday. They took an ill-fated trip through Europe together which could serve as the basis for a novel. These three vivid characters, none of whom ever understood either of the others, each had a long history. Oddly, there are images available of all these characters save the beautiful Jane, which also seems to be part of a story.

I actually listened to an audio version of it, which was wonderful, though it missed the great photographs in the actual book.

Anyway, I highly recommend the book, not as an antidote to any misapprehensions anyone might have about science and Romanticism, but as a great account of the scientific passions of a fascinating generation.

Do you think that science is unromantic?

And do you have an entertaining anecdote of someone's misbehavior that led you to think that?

Luckless Pedestrian

According to StreetsBlog, after dropping for many years, pedestrian deaths in traffic have been rising since their low in 2009 (link from Marginal Revolution).

They go on to point out that when pedestrians get hit by SUVs, the accident is more likely to be fatal, because SUVs hit you in the chest rather than lower down. Rate of collisions with SUVs has also gone up, though since more people are buying SUVs, I'm not sure whether the actual rate is going up, or even if the number of overall pedestrian/SUV accidents is going up.

The suburban nickname for us city dwellers, courtesy of Steely Dan

The suburban nickname for us city dwellers, courtesy of Steely Dan

And that is true of a lot of other data. No one knows how many people are walking, or, for that matter, bicycling, how far, and under what conditions. Rates of fatal pedestrian acciddents seem to have climbed for crossing in the middle of the street, on arterials, etc., relative to other locations and road types. I have no idea what any of that might mean, or what actions anyone might conceivably take.

Traffic is political, so the comments below the article find ways to work immigrants, pompous SUV owners, and elites seeking to take away your internal combustion engines into their response. When your only tool is outrage, everything you see is something outrageous.

The relative absence of data

We feel like we live in this totalizing information space, where everything about us is known, but that is really true only of cyberspace. In the real world, no one has a good handle on rates, distances, frequencies, or any of the other parameters of these encounters. Fatalities get reported, injuries less so.

Maybe it's due to distracted driving, bicycling, and walking (I actually have seen people bicycling in Boston traffic while looking at their phones), but who knows?

Traffic is political

Did I mention that? It's interesting what else people can draw from these figures. This 2017 NPR article on pedestrian deaths, for example, mentions that

  • People of color are over-represented among those pedestrians killed. Non-white people are 34.9 percent of the U.S. population, but make up 46.1 percent of pedestrian deaths.

  • In certain places, this disparity is especially stark. In North Dakota, Native Americans are five percent of the population, but account for nearly 38 percent of pedestrian deaths.

But the thing I note from the Pedestrian and Bicycling Information Center is that 70 percent of pedestrians and 88 percent of bicyclists killed in 2014 were males. Not too surprising, though what did surprise me is that the average age of those killed has been climbing. The average bicyclist killed in an accident in 1988 was 24, and in 2014 that average age had climbed to 45.

Anyway, when analyzing which groups suffer more from these accidents, you have to take into account how many of them are male, their average age, and how many miles they travel by that means of transportation. Since different social groups differ in their composition and choice (or lack of choice) of transportation, that has to be taken into account.

Are you a luckless pedestrian or bicyclist?

Steely Dan didn't manage to work bicyclists into "Don't Take Me Alive", but no reason why I can't.

Life Without the Comfort of Sugar

I've been sleeping and working well lately. I'm trying not to take it for granted. I have rules, procedures, and habits that keep my life and productivity in line, but they are certainly much more effective when I already have a general tendency to do the right thing.

It’s pretty obvious when you see it like this

It’s pretty obvious when you see it like this

Before the start of last year, I read an essay by David Leonhardt, A Month Without Sugar, about how he does not consume added sugars during the month of January. As he points out in his column, that's harder than it looks, because sugar gets slipped into all sorts of processed foods, often under misleading names like "evaporated cane juice" or "malt syrup" (according to UCSF's sugarscience site, there are at least 61 names for sugar). It's in almost all bread, for example. And in the whole grain mustard I usually buy. And even in some frozen mixed vegetables I sometimes cook for breakfast.

So I did the no sugar thing for six weeks at the beginning of last year, and am doing it again this year. I kind of hope that this is not the cause of my recent clarity. I actually like bread, that mustard, and some other prepared foods, putting honey in my yogurt, and actual desserts as well. At this time of year hot cocoa is a big favorite, and I have not had any. Giving up sugar entirely is not something I'm aiming for.

My favorite breakfast since that first time, last year, is steel-cut oats cooked with milk and mixed with a sliced ripe banana I saute until brown and a tablespoon or so of peanut butter. I had been adding increasing amounts of sugar to my oatmeal before that, and knew that was not a good idea. This is just sweet enough for me.

Some people have some kind of transformative moment when they try sugar again, often realizing they no longer like sugar at all, or find things too oppressively sweet. I didn't, and don't expect to when I start eating it again. Trader Joe's Coffee Bean Blast ice cream was just as fantastic after my sugar vacation as it was before. Though, perhaps surprisingly, I have more control over how much of it I eat now. I do have pretty stringent portion control.

I've been cutting down on dessert for years now, so this last tastebud reset was mostly just a marginal improvement. Still, successive marginal improvements add up to big changes over time, the secret to any long-term lifestyle change.

Meanwhile, I have a couple of more weeks when I will beaver away, getting up early and being a generally annoying busy bee. That is, I would be annoying, but the only other current inhabitant of the house, my recently out of college son, does not get up before about 10 am, so the rest of humanity is spared. We'll see what happens when I make myself a cup of hot cocoa.

Legal Threats: Facing Theranos' Lawyers

Like most Americans, or at least most Americans of my race, class, and gender, what I fear most is not assault or loss of political rights (though I am definitely keeping an eye on those), but being involved in some kind of protracted legal dispute.

A lawsuit, which is almost always both lengthy and expensive, seems to me like the most horrific experience someone can go through without the actual fear of bodily harm. Lawsuits replace combat as a way of settling disputes, and the threat of violence has been replaced by legal action. The idea that some people indulge in them frequently seems insanely perverse.

To succeed, you need a good idea, chutzpah, and expensive lawyers

Elizabeth Holmes sees into your gullible soul

Elizabeth Holmes sees into your gullible soul

So that was what particularly struck me about John Carreyrou's Bad Blood, the story of Elizabeth Holmes and the bizarre fraud of Theranos: the terrifying lawyers, the brutal NDAs, the harassment, and the legal threats that faced anyone who crossed Holmes and her partner/BF Sunny Balwani.

First off: tremendous book, totally fun, both informative and entertaining. I listened to the audio, but whatever the format, you won't be disappointed.

Partway through the book, the author, Carreyrou, appears as a character, describing how he first heard of the story, how he researched it, how he reported it. At first this seems odd. "How I got the story" is kind of a tyro journalistic approach.

Carreyrou as a character in the drama

But there was a good reason for doing it this way, because only part of the story is digging into Theranos' claims, malfunctioning gadgets, and breathtaking "fake it 'till you make it" attitude. The rest of it is the savage reaction of Holmes and Balwani. They made many attempts to stop the publication of Carreyrou's first piece in the Wall Street Journal, up to lobbying the WSJ's owner, Rupert Murdoch, an investor in Theranos, to kill the story. To his credit, he upheld the wall between business and editorial.

Like most things, this has been going on since ancient Sumer

Like most things, this has been going on since ancient Sumer

Imagine being a regular person, skilled at your job, happy to be working at a place that seems to be doing cool things, and then slowly realizing that nothing is as it seems, and you are, in fact, party to a tremendous fraud. But when you try to tell someone about it, you discover that the non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) that you signed forbid you to discuss anything you learned, and that they contained non-disparagement clauses that leave you open to legal action if you criticize your former employer in any way.

Eventually this all came out, through Carreyrou's dogged reporting. But what struck me was the fact that this was a high-profile company with a non-functioning product, which did attract the attentions of a top journalist. What about other employees, and lower profile companies, who have signed similar agreements?

How much more of this is there?

How often does this go on? Now, it would be silly to claim that corporate litigation is some kind of sign of our decadent age. Inventors, investors, and customers have all be merrily suing each other for centuries, sometimes in cases that stretched for decades. Some people think that after their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers settled down to a career as patent trolls, not really bothering to invent anything else (note that there are those who dispute this characterization).

But aside from the fraud, the implacable legal threats were the most fascinating part of the story. It gives one pause to think of how many horrendous stories are kept silent by CEOs and companies that are just a bit less mediagenic and visible than Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, but equally ruthless.

How many lawyers do you have on retainer?

Dismaying to think how many one-lawyer businesses there are in this country.

Alien robots at Shasta Dam: the Untold Story

I was just checking Shorpy over the weekend, when I was struck with this image of robots coolly firing at the Army troops desperately holding them off. As I remember, this happened around 1940, but was suppressed because rising tensions with the Japanese took priority. The robots were eventually domesticated, and used for construction purposes.

Cable-firing robots attack! (Click to open a larger view on the Shorpy site)

Cable-firing robots attack! (Click to open a larger view on the Shorpy site)

I love the angle of the photo, by Russell Lee, for the Farm Security Administration.

What they actually are is almost as interesting. Shasta Dam was concrete. A large central tower was built next to the concrete plant. It was connected by cables to a total of seven towers like the two above, which actually moved on tracks, as you can see in the image below.

One of the moveable towers from a different angle

One of the moveable towers from a different angle

Large buckets were filled with concrete at the plant, then cranked across to one of the towers, where it was dumped to form blocks fifty feet square and five feet deep, which make up the dam. I don’t know how often this particular method was used to build dams, but it has a real dieselpunk charm.

The mama robot feeding her young

The mama robot feeding her young

Lee’s photograph of the dam under construction is itself a wonderful image, worth clicking through to Shorpy to see in full.

Shasta dam under construction

Shasta dam under construction

Finicky language choices in my new story

The tech in my story is a bit cheesier than this cover story’s

The tech in my story is a bit cheesier than this cover story’s

I have a novella in this month’s issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots”, a story in my City of Storms series.

Asimov’s has a blog, From Earth to the Stars, and yesterday I had a post in it, “Language Usage in ‘How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots’”, about the reasoning behind some specific word choices I made in the story.

Am I selling this? It’s one of those “how the sausage gets made” pieces, and YMMV, but if that kind of thing does pique your interest, do check it out.

Things Maps Don't Tell Us

When it comes to conveying visual information clearly, a line drawing is often the best choice.

Of course, good informational line drawings require a specific set of skills. Aside from meticulous draftsmanship, you need subject matter expertise—you have to know exactly which aspects of what you are drawing are most important, and how to convey that importance to the reader.

Years ago, I found a book in my boyhood public library, The LaGrange Public Library, that fascinated me: Things Maps Don't Tell Us: An Adventure Into Map Interpretation, by Armin K Lobeck. It was published in the year of my birth, 1956.

This was decades before I managed to gin up any enthusiasm for geology (now a particular interest). But the book seemed to pull the curtain back on certain secrets of the physical world that no one had so clearly revealed before. And that revelation came visually.

That that earnest subtitle ("adventure" is definitely overpromising) didn't put me off will tell you something about my more earnest younger self.

Why the world looks the way it does

Lobeck's method of explanation is both simple and subtle. He wants us to understand that the flow of rivers, the shape of islands, the location of cities, the routes of highways, and the shapes of lakes are caused by the underlying geology.

So he classifies the patterns by their underlying causes. Peninsulas, for example, can be sand spits of various kinds, cuestas resulting from tilted rock layers, eroded deltas, or many other things. But on a typical map, all you see is the shape. He describes the underlying causes of specific coastlines, river patterns, lakes, and many other formations.

The way he teaches you about these is by showing two facing pages on each two-page spread of the book. The left hand page shows what the landscape looks like as shown on some regular map, some showing an entire continent, some a much smaller area. He removes any extraneous features in his simplified sketch version. On the right hand side is a diagram of what causes led to those particular shapes, patterns of rivers, or whatever.

For example, here is his explanation of two peninsulas in the Great Lakes: Door Peninsula in Wisconsin, and the Bruce Peninsula (called Saugeen Peninsula on the map). On the left hand map, they are, well, just peninsulas, land surround on three sides by water.

Great Lakes Peninsulas map_0001(2).jpg

If you heard me talk, you’d hear that my accent marks me as coming from this area

But the right hand map (and the crisply detailed explanation I have not included) shows how the downcurved layers of the Michigan Basin come up in curving ridges, ridges that, due to glaciation, now are surrounded by water. He points out the circular pattern of the formations around Lakes Huron and Michigan. Not just these two peninsulas, but islands, Green and Georgian Bays, and the shapes of the Great Lakes themselves.

Suddenly it all makes sense

Suddenly it all makes sense

That's just a taste of a book that has 72 examples of this sort in total, some of them including multiple places in the world. It's really a nice way to get a knowledge of landforms, and it's something I often refer to when trying to figure out some fictional landscape.

And you can see how Lobeck's eye and hand have made things clearer for us that anything else could.

If you want another example of Lobeck's work (not from the book), here is his map of Kentucky.

I want one of these for every place

I want one of these for every place

I could use maps of other complex areas, the Caucasus for example, to help me understand the history of the area. I have yet to find any.

Grief and intellectual absolutism

I’m reading Anne Somerset’s Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, another consequence of my viewing of the movie The Favourite (my review here). So far, it’s nicely written, detailed but not a grind, and an interesting insight into what happens when a really normal person with some health problems becomes monarch of a significant kingdom. It’s also an insight into the precarious feeling of the political environment after the Glorious Revolution. That James II’s son and Anne’s half brother, James Edward Francis Stewart, the Pretender, might actually become King was a real possibility.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, meditating on how to get back at someone

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, meditating on how to get back at someone

As The Favourite shows, a lot of Anne’s emotional life was tied up with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. They had been close since Sarah was 13 and Anne eight, when Sarah became a maid of honour to Mary Beatrice of Modena, second wife of James II, Anne’s father (this was in 1673, long before he had his brief run as king).

The formerly close relationship ended in the early 1700s, during Anne’s reign. Though intelligent and witty, Sarah had always been hard to get along with. She became an ardent Whig, while Anne leaned Tory. Sarah would not leave this alone.

The historical significance of the deaths of children

In 1703, Sarah’s only surviving son, John, caught smallpox at Cambridge, and died. Sarah was overcome with grief, and, even though Anne had suffered her own griefs, with a son who had died at 11 and a number of children who had died young or been stillborn, this did not lead Sarah to a common sympathy with her. In fact, according to Somerset, “…Sarah’s grief had acquired a competitive edge. She came to believe that Anne’s suffering when her children died had not been nearly as intense as hers.”

Most of us have known someone like that.

But it seems that the grief had a significant effect on her personality:

Sarah’s bitterness at the loss of her only son stifled her generosity of spirit. Now, intolerance and inflexibility, became her dominant traits. By her own account, she had never derived much emotional satisfaction from her friendship with Anne, but henceforth it was validated in her eyes principally by her belief that she must mould Anne to her will and thus aid not only her husband [the Duke of Marlborough] and Godolphin [First Lord of the Treasury] but also the political party she favored [the Whigs]. Finding in politics an outlet that distracted her from her grief, Sarah devoted herself to it with febrile energy, seeing things in absolute terms that left no room for nuance. It became increasingly hard for her to accommodate any form of disagreement, or to concede that other people’s beliefs had any legitimacy at all.

It made her a familiar tiresome partisan. How often are these inflexible people riven with grief, or some other strong emotion or experience that has eroded parts of their personality? I don’t know that this is a common cause of tiresome political absolutism, and even knowing its very real cause couldn’t have made Sarah anything but a real pain to deal with, but it is an interesting thing to think about.

Sarah never recovered her old personality, though she lived until age 84. I think it is probably vain to think that any of our more pointlessly ardent political absolutists will either.

What effect have personal tragedies and experiences had on the way you relate politically?

And do you really think you are able to tell?

Constants of Civilizational Collapse as Explained by T. B. Macaulay

When I am bored, frustrated, or distracted, I sometimes comfort myself with the mandarin prose of the 19th century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. His lengthy but balanced sentences, his piercing (if sometimes show-offy) erudition, and the clarity and firmness of his positions always calms me down with a sense of Victorian certainty.

Yesterday I was looking at his essay on “War of the Succession in Spain”. After seeing The Favourite ( my reaction to the movie here), I renewed my interest in the late Stuart period and its virulent political polarization. Rumbling beneath the action of the movie are the battles of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), and their costs.

Charles II, the inbred last Hapsburg King of Spain, whose death without heirs started the War of the Spanish Succession

Charles II, the inbred last Hapsburg King of Spain, whose death without heirs started the War of the Spanish Succession

As it happens, Macaulay wrote a review of a book by Lord Mahon, History of the War of the Succession in Spain, and I decided to goof off by reading it. As with all Macaulay essays, he spends a little time on the book and its author, then goes off to tell the real story, the one the author somehow cloddishly missed in their urge for publication. Mahon does not come off that well.

But Macaulay, a man with a real sense of the political, an ardent Whig, with all the devotion to political progress that implied at the time, can really dig into the underlying themes of history. He spends some time describing the vast power and culture of Spain in its heyday, when it ruled nations around the world. Then he goes through the political collapse that led to its becoming a battleground for other rising powers. For his emotional reaction, he somewhat sardonically quotes Isaiah: “But how art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, that didst weaken the nations!”

“All the causes of the decay of Spain resolve themselves into one cause, bad government.”

After Macaulay tells us that, he provides an obituary not just of Imperial Spain, but of any nation that is not careful to maintain its political institutions:

The effects of a change from good government to bad government are not fully felt for some time after the change has taken place. The talents and the virtues which a good constitution generates may for a time survive that constitution. Thus the reigns of princes, who have established absolute monarchy on the ruins of popular forms of government often shine in history with a peculiar brilliancy. But when a generation or two has passed away, then comes signally to pass that which was written by Montesquieu, that despotic governments resemble those savages who cut down the tree in order to get at the fruit. During the first years of tyranny, is reaped the harvest sown during the last years of liberty.

That’s worth reading carefully. There’s a lot in this paragraph. I think his observation, that burning the stored power of a state can give a very bright light, is key to some of what we are experiencing now.

Not every prognostication of doom and destruction resonates with our current political moment, no matter what people may claim, but this one certainly does. Institutions take constant, unrewarding, and often frustrating maintenance. As always, maintenance receives no great plaudits. It is the province of those who hold doing their duty as the highest good, and who rely on the respect and cooperation of those who understand how important their quiet hidden work is.

Beware the leader who cuts down the long-maintained fruit tree and says, “It used to be hard work to get at that fruit, but I alone have made it easy for you, my people.” And, yes, “savages”, probably did not do this, unless they were raiding someone else’s orchard, but the point stands.

"The Favourite": a Glamorous and Savage Look at Court Culture

The Favourite is a clinical examination of hothouse Court politics during the reign of Queen Anne (the first decade of the Seventeenth Century). It is sometimes billed as a comedy. Though it does have some funny bits, it ends in neither a wedding nor a funeral, but in a kind of psychic immurement, so take your pick.

Anne doesn’t seem to have a great grip on either orb or scepter, but that’s just lack of artistic skill, not metaphor

Anne doesn’t seem to have a great grip on either orb or scepter, but that’s just lack of artistic skill, not metaphor

Miss E and I both loved it. So, really, a good date movie. Men, if you're looking for battlefield scenes, this is no Barry Lyndon—incidentally, the first movie where interiors were filmed solely by candlelight, a style shown to great effect in The Favourite. But watching three brilliantly acted sparring women, any of whom could eat you alive, definitely has its charms. The psychic violence is right near the surface. And all the sex is, in some way, also about power and manipulation (once, um, literally). What more could you ask for?

As always, your dating mileage may vary, and I make no guarantees.

Plus, it has some brilliant set pieces, like the absurd dance sequence that shows Queen Anne that she is physically increasingly unable to enjoy anything about life even as it makes everyone else seem like some kind of Olympic athlete. This clip is annotated with what they called the various moves during shooting.

Is historical fiction more like history or like fantasy?

I'm sometimes curious about the place of historical fiction in a world where history is so little known, even among the educated classes. In some ways, The Favourite could have been set in any court, since the roiling world outside the palace where modern science and literature were in the process of being invented never plays much of a role. But the characters were real and interesting, and misbehaving English-speaking royals are always of interest.

Movies set in this era (I'm thinking particularly of The Draughtsman's Contract, an acknowledged influence on director Yorgos Lanthimos) always love the huge wigs, the foppish dress, and the ludicrous and childish misbehavior on the part of aristocrats, in this case duck racing and pelting laughing fat men with fruit. Silent slo mo always helps make these activities seem more compelling than they could possibly have been.

The costumes are inspired by historical ones but have a a modern feel to them. The endless hallways and chambers of the palace have an almost Gormenghast feel to them. A character is poisoned and then imprisoned in a dismal whorehouse (a movie like this could scarcely show any other kind), which is actually the only other interior location shown.

I'm not a huge fan of much historical fantasy fiction, but if more if it was like this, I might change my mind. I'm willing to be enlightened if anyone has any suggestions for me.

How women could exert power

Historically, ambitious women who sought to influence events lacked access to the violence and coercion that lie underneath the exercise of power, and so were forced to rely on emotional manipulation and sex. Men, who did have violence at their disposal, always found this contemptible, even as they found themselves responding.

Sarah Churchill, played with self-confident aplomb by Rachel Weisz, is an actual player in politics, helping manage the finances of the War of the Spanish Succession on behalf of her husband, the Duke of Marlborough, and via her access to Queen Anne. Marlborough keeps winning increasingly bloody and expensive battles, but battlefield defeats are not enough to force France to sue for peace. Parliament is growing restive, facing tax increases to finance an increasingly expensive, stalemated war.

Abigail Masham, introduced into the palace by her relative Sarah, is destitute, without any power at all. She manages to gain Anne's trust and affection, makes a favorable if loveless marriage, and gains power in the palace.

The result is a power struggle for emotional control of the sad, ill, sometimes befuddled, sometimes surprisingly shrewd Anne, who is less easily controlled than either would-be puppetmaster thinks.

The movie gets the hothouse court atmosphere down, though with perhaps a bit more fisheye lens action than necessary. This is the era when once-powerful French nobles struggled for the privilege of collecting Louis XIV's chamberpot. Tiny privileges loom larger than military victories, long emotional sieges can lead to sudden changes in status, and taking your eye off the ball for any length of time can lead to personal disaster. It would be nice to achieve power and wealth some other way, but this is pretty much the only game in town.

A one point late in their conflict, Sarah Churchill realizes something about her rival, Abigail Masham: "We're playing different games". And it's true. At story start Abigail has nothing but a connection to her more powerful cousin. She is scrabbling desperately for survival. Sarah is playing the larger game of state and international politics. In the end Abigail achieves...well, you should see the movie to see what she achieves. It's a brilliant vision of balancing what you want versus what you're willing to give up.

The game is hard fought, and the outcome is in doubt until the very end. And maybe past it. I was actually startled by how much I enjoyed it.

What genre do you think The Favourite is?

I think of it as historical fantasy without the tedious magic. You can pour horror, suspense, and political intrigue into that bucket without missing a drop.

My Arisia, January 18-20, 2019


I’m going to be at Arisia, a Boston convention, over MLK weekend. Instead of the Westin Seaport, where it has been for a few years, it will be at the Boston Park Plaza

As usual, I’ll be doing a few chin-stroking panels. I like to make them entertaining, but if you lack the stamina to watch four SF writers expound on some topic of intense interest to them, do find me elsewhere (like the bar). Or, better yet, find me and take me to a bar.

But I will have opinions about things:

Embracing the Alien: Writing Believable ETs

Saturday January 19, 10 AM

I’ve been writing a lot of aliens recently, after not doing it for awhile. I hope someone has clever suggestions I can steal.

Fellow panelists:

Timothy Goyette mod
Ruthanna Emrys
James L. Cambias
Walter H. Hunt

Writing About a Future That's Already Here

Sunday January 20, 10 AM

Yeah, we don’t even understand the present, so how can we write about the future? Why does the future still have people sitting in a row talking about a topic?

Also starring:

Trisha J. Wooldridge mod
James Hailer
Debra Doyle
Alex Feinman

The Past in Present Tense: Escaping Flashbacks

Sunday, January 20, 2:30 PM

I remember the transformative horror of the last time I was on a flashback panel…..

Unindicted co-conspirators:

Gillian Daniels mod
Debra Doyle
Leigh Perry
Amy J. Murphy

Hope to see you there. And if you are a co-panelist who has ended here because you were checking on who else in the world was talking about you, hope to see you there as well.

Oh, and happy new year 2019! Let’s see if we manage to live through this one.

Doing the Locomotion: Saratoga Spring and New York City

A few more Shorpy photographs of people walking, these focused a bit more on male style.

Previous locomotion entry.

Dress like you mean it

I do tend to notice men's dress, and here are a couple of good examples.

The end of the Nineteenth Century was right about now

The end of the Nineteenth Century was right about now

The coolest man in town

The coolest man in town

Saratoga Springs is a resort town, known for its horse racing. Here is everyone strolling in the shade of the elms, in 1915.

I’d love a look at the headlines

I’d love a look at the headlines

This couple is quite elegant, but I think the male far outshines his mate. Everything about him is sharp.

Meanwhile, right behind them: newsies! They really did dress like that. The more sophisticated older one is leaning casually against a tree, leg up, while the younger ones try to impress him with their street smarts.

Everyone has somewhere to be

Everyone has somewhere to be

Not just the clothes, but how you wear them

Not just the clothes, but how you wear them

Finally, the heart of purposeful walking, New York City. Here is a picture of the intersection of Seventh Avenue and West 125th, in 1938. Again, a lot of people, but I love this other gracious gentleman. Both he and the boulevardier in Saratoga Springs show that it's not just the clothes, but the way that you wear them. And, really, a hat helps, even though that is no longer permissible, and just makes you look like you're losing your hair.

Where is she going tonight?

Where is she going tonight?

But I also always like this cheerful lady right behind him. I wish I knew her.

I wish I knew them all, and it is a bit chilling, sometimes, to realize that they are all long dead.

Do you look at pictures of the past?

What kind of thing do you look for when you do? I also look at machinery, architecture, and trains.

The Return of Accents

No sooner had my written my post on English accents in a performance of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia than I went to a play here in Cambridge, called Barber Shop Chronicles, by Inua Ellams, a relatively young Nigerian-born British writer and performer.

One of the three angles of view

One of the three angles of view

It's fun, with scenes in a variety of barber shops across Africa, with one in London where emigre Africans hang out. The actors are all black men, have great voices, and know how to move, and even how to sit in an interesting way. It's tremendous fun.

And they have accents of their place of origin, some stronger than others. S, one of my long-time theater companions said she had to retune her ear, the same way she does with Shakespeare, before it made sense to her.

In this case, the accents are essential, not accidental. These are specific people, each from a specific place, and their voices show it.

One charming bit of business was that each man, when the haircut was done, got three views of the result. The barber had a decent size mirror that he would hold first to show a left view, then behind so the client could look in the big mirror (us, the audience), and then a right view. Each client examined himself carefully before giving approval. I usually just glance in the mirror, see that my haircut looks as it always does, and that's it. I'm clearly not taking this seriously enough.

They argue politics, talk about women, bitch about white people, and discuss sports, because the same soccer match is on in every barber shop for most of the first hour of the play. There is a bit of a plot, a personal conflict among the family running the London barber shop, but it's not that relevant, and I could have done without it. Interestingly, there weren't any pairs of men who were close personal friends. Men did like each other, but boastful camaraderie was as close as they got to friendship. I don't think anyone would write a play about women in beauty salons where there were no intimate friends.

It's two hours, without intermission, and the time zipped by, so I would recommend it, if you can get to Cambridge, Massachusetts before January 5, 2019.

What's your favorite play that focuses on the rhythm and music of speech?

And that sounds like real speech? I think that was what impressed me the most.

Arcadia and Plain Language

A couple of weeks ago, Miss E and I went to a performance of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, my favorite Stoppard, and a play I love overall. It's about sex, entropy, garden design, celebrity, academic infighting, and the role of technology in what we think of as knowledge. Of all of his plays it melds intellect and emotion most effectively. If you ever get a chance to see it, go.

Thomasina and Septimus

Thomasina and Septimus

It's not an easy play. Though the staging is relatively simple, with just one set (the same room in two different time periods, 1809 and "the present"—though as time goes by and technology changes I think it will be necessary to change that to "1993") the dialog is complex, something like an Amy Sherman-Palladino sitcom about Eliezer Yudkowsky and Robin Hanson as malingering coworkers at Chernobyl. I thought the Concord Players did a creditable job.

We attended a Sunday matinee in Concord, Massachusetts. Like most wealthy communities in Massachusetts, Concord skews old. Play attendance skews old. Matinees skew old. I am into my 60s, Miss E somewhat younger, and we were among the youngest people in the audience. This is relevant.

The problem of realistic accents

The play is set in an English country house, 1809 and 1993. So the actors, all of them American, spoke in English accents. I presume it was some general southeast English BBC accent, or at least an attempt at it. I don't have a particularly good ear for accents, so take my judgment with a grain of salt.

Its not easy to do an accent that isn't your own. It's a skill, like acting itself is a skill, and requires a lot of work to get right. English actors seem to be very good at it, so that hearing Dominic West or Idris Elba speak in their natural accent after watching The Wire, where they play Americans, and not only that, but specific Americans from two different strata of Baltimore, is startling. But most actors, even bigshot pros, have trouble with accents. It doesn't help that there isn't a "Southern" accent, or an "English" accent—there are instead a wide range of variations by region, class, and age.

The audience at Arcadia was mostly bewildered. They couldn't hear a lot of the dialog (not enough people admit their need of hearing assistance, and even fewer bite the bullet and spring for a really good hearing aid), and what they did hear they had trouble understanding.

Pretend it's translated from another language

This may be solving a localized problem rather than a general one, but I'd like to see theater companies abandon accents when it isn't relevant to the story. If Arcadia was a Russian play translated into English, the actors would have felt comfortable using their own accents and focusing on the extremely dense and precise dialog. And the audience would have had a better chance of understanding them.

The linguist John McWhorter (he took over Slate's linguistics podcast, Lexicon Valley, awhile ago, and is always entertaining) suggests that Shakespeare should be translated into modern English, since no one really understands a lot of the dialog anymore. In some ways Russians and Germans, who have always loved Shakespeare, understand him better than modern English speakers do, because he was translated into the contemporary versions of those languages.

But it's a bit like translating Thucydides. As I understand it, his prose was difficult and weirdly structured right from the beginning, kind of like Thomas Carlyle, or Thomas Hobbes, who happens to be the author of a really hard-to-read early translation of History of The Peloponnesian War that I somewhat over-optimistically purchased not too long ago. I have not managed to scrabble more than a few paragraphs up its rugged rocky slopes.

You have to be careful not to squeeze the specific cragginess and bagginess out of it, the way fanfic writers and shippers always crush every bit of unpredictability and eccentricity out of the works they insist they love.

But I've wandered a bit far afield here. Accents or not, if you get a chance to see Arcadia, take it.

What accent do you think is appropriate?

Are there works that really should be done in their original dialect, even if subtitles are necessary?

Doing the Locomotion: Chicago and Boston

I've previously mentioned my love of the website Shorpy, with its cleaned up and sharpened historic photographs. I visit almost daily.

One thing I like to look at in the image is what people were up to when they didn't know they were being observed, and particularly how they walk, stand, or lounge. These photographs are almost all urban photographs, so I am probably missing some great rural ambling. But here are some of my favorites, pointing out various individuals of interest. My computer wallpaper is a rotating selection of Shorpy images, these among them.

Each picture links to the much larger image on the Shorpy website, as they request. Most of those images are very high resolution, and can be further expanded. Read the comments. Shorpy has some of the most attentive and well-informed commenters around, if a bit overly concerned with makes of automobiles.

Today I'll cover Chicago and Boston. Later, some places in New York.

That Toddlin' Town

For some reason, my eye has been caught most often by people near where I grew up, in Chicago.

Chicago, Wabash, 1900

Chicago, Wabash, 1900

Here, for example, is the Wabash Avenue L in 1900. It seems to be mostly about rails and facades, but an attentive commenter picked out this lady.

We’ll never know where she was headed

We’ll never know where she was headed

This is probably not the main character of a story, but a supporting player who rivets the attention whenever she's onstage. Where did she go once she strode off the edge of this photograph?


Also in Chicago, this time under the L, in 1940, are people dressed in the much lighter summer clothes of four decades later.

Chicago, Under the L, 1940

Chicago, Under the L, 1940

My eye is instantly riveted by this lady, who really knows how to make getting from one place to another an adventure. Her way of moving is even more impressive when you reflect that she's doing it in heels across paving stones and streetcar tracks.

“Don’t just get somewhere,  go  there!”

“Don’t just get somewhere, go there!”

And, finally, a scene before the war. Another summer afternoon, just a year later than the previous one, right after work. You see women in summer dresses, older men in hats, younger men bareheaded. Everyone's going somewhere, but in no rush, so I haven't picked anyone out in particular.

A Chicago, the summer before the war

A Chicago, the summer before the war

Businesslike Bostonians

This shows the end of Bromfield Street in 1908, right where it joins Washington Street. The street looks pretty much the same today. Marliave is still there. That's the Granary Burial Ground at the far end.

A bit less horse poop, but much the same in 2018

A bit less horse poop, but much the same in 2018

I hope she made it on time

I hope she made it on time

It looks like the morning commute. My eye is always caught by this lady, hustling to work, not particularly enjoying herself. I've never figured out if that's her lunch she's carrying, her purse, or a beer stein.

He, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about getting there on time. They’ll wait.

He, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about getting there on time. They’ll wait.

Meanwhile, the men look more relaxed. This older gentleman, very well dressed, is looking at the scene, while the two younger men behind him, saunter toward Tremont Street, one with his hands in his pockets.


Then here is what is now Dewey Square, in front of South Station, 1905. The Station has lost much of its bulk over the years, so each wing is shorter, and the elevated train is gone. I actually like elevateds, but most people find them noisy and unsightly. If they're paid for and are working, I'd keep them. Boston went through a lot of effort to bury theirs, and at great expense, though this one was gone long before that.

In the summer months there is a great farmers’ market here

In the summer months there is a great farmers’ market here

“He had pies in both hands, I’m telling you….”

“He had pies in both hands, I’m telling you….”

Lots of people walking in various ways, but I like these two, who, yes, are standing, not walking: a cop in a classic custodian helmet (now associated only with Keystone Kops) and a shorter guy with something to say, standing on a slight slope so that he has a comic look perfect for one of those Mack Sennett two reelers.

Popping the Cork: What Caused the Rise of the Colorado Plateau?

A couple of weeks ago I discussed geology, the Colorado Plateau, and the mysteries of the plateau's uplift, and promised a possible explanation.

The Colorado Plateau from space (NASA Earth Observatory)

The Colorado Plateau from space (NASA Earth Observatory)

Aside from finding this stuff interesting in its own right, I'm hoping that great knowledge of these geological processes and the various ways in which visible landforms are created will enable me to create more credible and realistic geology for any fictional settings I come up with. For example, in one story I want to have a copper mine in a mountain setting. Is that even possible? How are copper deposits created and how do they end up where they are? I don't have the answer to that yet, but just popping it into a picturesque location without giving these questions due consideration is not something I want to do.

Plate tectonics and grizzled Colorado Plateau geologists

One of my go-to Colorado Plateau books is The Colorado Plateau, a Geologic History (2000), by Donald Baars. Near the end, Baars explains his caution about going all-in on plate tectonics, in a section cleverly titled Geophysics or Metaphysics?:

Over the past couple of decades, it has become quite fashionable in the geological community to relate all structural episodes such as described for the Colorado Plateau to "plate tectonics"...the concept of plate tectonics may be likened to a new religion. Since hard facts are lacking, if one is not a "believer" one is considered an "atheist" with regard to the many theories and interpretations of the "clergy": the oceanographers and geophysicists.

Note that while my edition of Baars is from 2000, it is a revision of an earlier work. Baars points out a variety of problems with the application of plate tectonics to Colorado Plateau geology, and his point is well taken: there are many geological processes that are only remotely related to plate tectonics. My excerpt skips over much of his reasoning.

At least he discusses it, though the scare quotes hint at some traumatic conference encounters with arrogant young pups pumped with the gospel of plate tectonics. In his otherwise admirably thorough Geological Evolution of the Colorado Plateau of Eastern Utah and Western Colorado (2011), Robert Fillmore barely mentions it.

The useful disappearance of the Farallon Plate

A currently popular theory that explains not only the Colorado Plateau, but the Front Range of the Rockies and the Basin and Range province involves the subduction and disappearance of the Farallon Plate under the North American Plate. Actually, as you might expect, the Colorado Plateau is very much an afterthought in this theory, and is more ambiguously a consequence of it than some other things. Note: the diagrams are from the fine book, Rough-Hewn Land, a Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains, by Keith Meldahl, which I will go into in more detail in a later post.

Very briefly, the Farallon Plate, an oceanic plate, was west of the North American Plate, a continental plate. They moved toward each other, making a convergent plate boundary. As happens in these cases, between 110 and 85 million years ago, the lighter continental plate rode up over the heavier oceanic plate, and the Farallon Plate dove under the North American Plate, in a process called subduction. That generated magma, which rose up and resulted in what is now the Sierra Nevada range. This is fairly common. The Andes and other mountain ranges are caused by the same process.

The first two phases (from Meldahl)

The first two phases (from Meldahl)

But then the Farallon Plate did something less common. Instead of continuing to subduct steeply, about 80 to 45 million years ago it flattened out, and slid under the North American Plate without continuing to dive and melt. There are various explanations for why this happened which I won't go into here. Since it didn't melt, it went much farther than it usually would have, eventually shoving up the Rocky Mountains, way farther from the continental plate boundary than mountains usually form. This is called the Laramide Orogeny, which for a long time was just a mysterious and evocative term in the books I read to try to understand things. I really didn't.

At this same time, the cork of the Colorado Plateau was also forced up, but did not get as deformed as the rocks in the new mountains.

Then, 43 to 21 million years ago, the Farallon Plate resumed a normal pattern of steep subduction. Gigantic volcanoes erupted all over what would become the future Great Basin, west of the Colorado Plateau. A lot of the mineral wealth of the area comes from this time.

The third and fourth phases (from Meldahl)

The third and fourth phases (from Meldahl)

In the last 20 million years the North American Plate rode right up over the Farallon-Pacific Ridge, which is where the seafloor spreading that fed the Farallon Plate occurred. Cut off from a source of new crust, the Farallon Plate stopped growing, sank, and vanished. The result was a upwelling of hot mantle rock that stretched the crust and created the Basin and Range and its north-south ranges of mountains: the landscape of much of the desert West. As I mentioned earlier, the rift valley of the Rio Grande is also part of this same stretching.

Always a bit player

You will notice that the Colorado Plateau is again an afterthought. The real action is in the east, where the Rockies form, and to the west, where the Great Basin emerges. The Colorado Plateau is the Haydn of geology, too calm and well-mannered to get the same attention as Beethoven and Mozart. It just keeps on composing geological symphonies.

Now, the detailed geology of the Colorado Plateau has a lot of specific interest, and I've used it in my own work. But this is enough for today.

Is this at all how you understand things?

Figuring this out has really enabled me to get the Colorado Plateau in a way I didn't before. Do you need this kind of fundamental explanation to appreciate things, or can you live with more specific knowledge?

The Merits of Having a Garden

One of the things I got back when I returned to the house was my garden. When I lived in the post-divorce apartment, I was above it all. I had a front porch, but no real contact with the soil. It was fine.

My current office (a corner of the dining room) overlooks the back yard. The bushes and trees were much overgrown when I returned and many of the perennials gone. I won't prune much until next year, since winter is on its way, though I am taking some of the bamboo back. I do get to feed the fish in the small pool every day. Nothing exotic, just thirty-nine cent goldfish that have grown surprisingly large. I can't really tell them from koi anyway, because I'm a total heathen.

But I go out every day and walk around and check things out, think about what I want to do next spring. Most of the butterfly garden is gone. Some years ago I had a neighbor whose back yard abutted on the yard of our triple decker. I was just starting to garden then, and Sinclair's garden was quite impressive. And every day she would get home from her job at MIT, and would walk around it with a drink and a cigarette, considering its many details. She really looked at it.

From my desk, again

From my desk, again

So I try to channel her, and really feel what the garden is, and what might be changed. Sinclair would readily move plants, just to see if things could be improved. She gave me much advice across the back fence, and she was one of my favorite neighbors of all time.

My next door neighbor Lisa is a gardener too, as well as another writer, so I do have another compatriot.

There is not much to be done to it now, so I am not tempted away from my desk. But I do enjoy going out to look at it, while thinking about something. I almost called this post "the perils of having a garden". But that's really wrong. Writing feels more like growing things than building things, and the problems of rearranging things, only to find that a plot point or character does not like its new surroundings, has similarities to managing a garden as well.

But writers are prone to elaborate metaphors, so I'll stop there. Still, taking care of something that will only gradually become something, is the perfect pace to relax the mind from the frustrations of making stuff up. For now, I'll chalk that up as a time benefit. Next spring, I may have a different report for you.