Christmas Snowpocalypse -- the view from sunny Arizona

Here in Arizona, I had to brave temperatures in the 70's while running errands earlier today.  Life is tough.

But I've been looking at pictures from the big blizzard that's been dumping snow on the Northeast states.  That's some pretty cold-looking stuff you got there, people!

A photo gallery at Talking Points Memo led me to Dan Nguyen's Flickr set from New York City, which has some particularly nice shots.  This is my favorite, of Union Square:

Union Square - New York Snowstorm Blizzard 2010
 I like the sense of calm in this photo, at a location that would normally be filled with traffic moving in all directions.  The emptiness of the vista, the lack of vehicles and the wonderful old buildings (the snow-haze gives the buildings a layered effect not unlike that seen in Chinese mountain landscapes), make it almost seem like one has dropped a century back in time.  (Just put your thumb over that McDonald's sneaking in on the left edge.)

UPDATE: Here are a few more outstanding photos I've found on Flickr.  One that could be titled "New Yorkers Are Crazy" by O62, and a lovely self-portrait with snow by esparist.


One Word

Via Jay Lake, Daniel Abraham is having a discussion on story vs. sentence in fiction over on his Live Journal blog; Part of the discussion has been about how a story can change when the choice of words is changed.

As it happens, I can give an example where one word, being changed, changed a story:

One of my own stories, "Angel's Blood", published in Heaven Sent (ed. by Pete Crowther, DAW [US] and Signet Creed [UK] 1995).

The Big Reveal in that story came in the following sentence:

"There is war in Heaven, and God is losing."

For whatever reason (it showed up in the galleys without explanation), Crowther decided to change that to this:

"There is war in Heaven, and the angels are losing."

I think that both versions are effective stories. But they're not the same story.

- - - - -

In that same discussion, Daniel brought up the loss of accessibility to written language over time, as the language of later generations changes in usage and meaning, gaining new vocabulary as well as losing the old.  Chaucer and Shakespeare were brought up as examples (outliers?) whose work is still read today because of their sheer strength of story, rather than their now-difficult language.

Language-change is only part of that, however.  Culture as a whole changes over time.  So there's less and less overlap between the culture of Chaucer's or Shakespeare's time and that of a reader fifity or a hundred or five hundrd years removed.  The context is lost.

So, in the context (*ahem*) of reading classical literature, to better understand that literature one needs to learn at least some of the historical context.  For that, things like annotated editions are useful.  But then your understanding of that context is dependent on the understanding and style (their own word-choices) of the annotations' author.  So ideally, the author of such an annotation would be a capable historian, linguist, archaeologist, anthropologist AND author.  And even then, your own brain is getting only a second-generation xerox of that author's understanding.

So it shouldn't really be a surprise that "popular culture" is, well, popular.  There's a "common context" that the reader can share, being a resident of the same culture the author of a modern work lives in.  The context of a work of classical fiction has become an uncommon context.

I think this may be why "historical mysteries" are popular.  The context of the historical period used for the mystery may be uncommon, but the meta-elements of mystery and detective fiction are part of the "common context" an average reader will be familiar with.  That gives the reader sufficient grounding in a work to give the author a chance to present the historical and cultural context clearly enough to give the reader a grounding in that aspect as well.

Conversely, even in a modern work, context can be relative. Why is fiction from other countries rarely popular in the US? I suspect it's because the cultural context is different enough to become part of the "uncommon context" I've mentioned above. Off the top of my head, it seems that the further away from the US (or the UK) a work of fiction originates, the less likely it is to gain a readership here.

And this can even apply to modern works supposedly set in a culture common to the average reader.  Back in my early 20's, I found myself reading Roommates by Elsie Lee.  Lee was a romance writer whose readership overlapped to some extent with SF readers.  (I think I first saw her work mentioned by Juanita Coulson in YANDRO, though I may be misremembering.)  At any rate, I came across and read the book.

I'm pretty sure I was not the audience for that book.  I was a young, socially awkward, inexperienced (worrying about getting laid wasn't a big concern back then; my state of general despair was more about just getting a date!).   And when I read Roommates, I was pretty thoroughly aghastified.  The lead characters in Roommates were... "husband-hunters" is the best term I can come up with.  To become someone's wife was the #1 goal in their lives.

I didn't have the context to understand those characters, or to sympathize with them.  To me, Roommates wasn't a romance novel, it was a horror novel.

(The website where I found the cover image, Fantastic Fiction, also quoted the backcover blurb to Roommates: "They were roommates happily sharing expenses and men, secrets and strategies, until they discovered the real meaning of womanhood--and love."  And underneath that was a "Similar Works By Other Authors" section.  The work cited as similar was Oath Of Fealty, by Elizabth Moon.   Wait, what?)


On the Subject of Beards, With Visual Aids

I'll be going back to work in early January, having recovered from shoulder surgery sufficiently. Which means I'll have to once again shave off the beard I've been growing back these last few months, and which I prefer to have.

A lot of people have said I look younger without the beard. I think they're wrong, but it's actually a matter of how good you look, not how young you look. Here's a piece of evidence to that effect:

The Most Interesting Man In The World

 Not convinced?  Okay, how about this?

with beard

without beard

I trust I've made my point.


A Questionable Christmas

Every Christmas season, there come along various seasonal items that make you stop short and say, "What?  Really?"  Here's a couple.  (I'll probably add more as I come across them.)

From the Toscano catalog, the Christmas Yeti ornament:

And from a Park Seed email, something to do with those overgrown, woody okra pods from your garden:

Every nativity needs a dragon, doesn't it?

You might think someone thinks dragons are just too damn cute to leave out of a Nativity.  But this particular setup was put together by someone basing it on the Book of Revelations, rather than the earlier parts of the New Testament.  That sounds like a fun family to be part of.


The Paris Exhibition on Flickr

I've been reading The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt.  Very good book, but I was especially struck by the section set in and during the Paris Exhibition of 1900 (think World's Fair), with lush descriptions of the buildings and exhibits.

Thought to take a look on the Flickr Commons pages to see if there were photos from the Exhibition.  Turned out there was not only a set of photos, it was a big set (271 photos), and they were even in color! (Hand-colored, but still....)

The full set here.


Two-Fer Teapots!

I occasionally browse around for teapot competitions online.  These are usually for ceramic artists, working within the constraints of teapot design; sometimes those constraints are stretched way-y-y-y beyond what one expects, and the results can be astonishing.

Saddleback College in California has an annual competition along those lines, and past years have produced fine work.  Alas, for 2010, Saddleback decided that rather than a gallery with individual photos of each entry, they'd only post a PDF of the winning entries and honorable mentions.

But wait!  Browsing a bit more, I came across this gallery from a teapot-themed competition/benefit-auction held by the AAW.  That's the American Association of Woodturners.  All those teapots are made of wood (or wood-like materials; one is made from corrugated cardboard).  Woodworking is another area of interest to me, so, hey!, I get two-for-one pleasure from these.  Here are several examples:

Some or most of the AAW teapots are purely decorative (I'd imagine you'd need to coat the interior with a food-safe varnish or polyurethane to actually brew tea in them).  Some are more than obvious about being purely art pieces, like this one, and especially this delicate little number.

And then there's the piece shown below, by artist Binh Pho, made of maple and decorated with glass beads, pearls, and 14k gold; detail photo here: