Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What I Read: Redshirts

Quite a neat coincidence, considering the inauguration of my Trek Thursday posts, that my most recent read is John Scalzi's Redshirts. It starts as an affectionate parody of everyone's favorite science fiction series, then quickly escalates into much more than that. It's a quick read—a member of my "One-Sit Reading" club, up there with The Crying of Lot 49 and The Painted Bird. I laughed out loud and read protracted excerpts to JV while I was reading because I simply could not wait for him to read it so he could enjoy them himself.

This is also the first book by John Scalzi that I've ever read, though I've heard of him before. Indeed, I've long appreciated his voice on the Internet when it comes to social issues I care about. I'm glad I finally had the chance to check out his fiction.

 I always have a hard time separating the artist from the work, truth be told—people like Orson Scott Card are so odious to me that it prevents me from enjoying their work. I realize such a separation is necessary for literary interpretation and valuing of works, but well, let's be honest: popular science fiction literature isn't about ~*~art~*~ and its interpretation, it's about storytelling and making a living. When the person is alive and well and influential and making a living off of their art, things are different. I am far more likely to give my money and attention to people who have demonstrated that they are thoughtful and empathetic individuals. I'm also more likely to "root" for them as writers, as it were, and to hope that their writing is good.

Was Redshirts perfect? No; there were some stylistic things I'd change (so many unnecessary dialog tags!) and I'm not sure how I feel about the epilogues. There are three epilogues, you see, all dealing with the ramifications of the plot's climax. I think the first epilogue is great conceptually, though its format as a series of blog posts isn't how I would have written it. The other two epilogues, for me, didn't add anything to the story, but I didn't mind reading them, either, so no net gain or loss. On the whole, Redshirts was a smart, hilarious book and deserving of all the critical claim it's garnered.  I'll be looking for more of Scalzi's books in future bookstore visits.

Speaking of redshirts:

Doomed Redshirt cross-stitch from aliciawatkins on Etsy

Monday, April 21, 2014

Birthstones: Emerald (May)

Who first beholds the light of day
In spring's sweet flowery month of May
And wears an emerald all her life
Shall be a loved and happy wife.
Emeralds should look somewhat familiar. Where have we seen this before?


A cookie for you if you knew right away that this is beryl, which has made an earlier appearance in this series as aquamarine.

Here is what the two look like if you compare them side by side.

March's birthstone, aquamarine, is a close relative of May's birthstone, emerald.May's birthstone, emerald, is a close relative of March's birthstone, aquamarine.

The difference in color comes from a difference in the impurities in their crystal lattice. Aquamarine, as you may recall, owes its color to the play between different Fe ions (Fe2+ and Fe3+). Emerald, on the other hand, is green because of trace amounts of the metals chromium or vanadium (usually chromium).

The name "emerald" comes to English by way of Greek to Latin to French. The Greeks called it, simply, smaragdos, meaning "green" or "green gem," a name they may or may not have taken from the Sanskrit marakata. Over time, Latin added an excrescent "e" to form esmaraldus. That became esmeraude in French and, finally, emeraude  in English in the 14th century CE.

Emerald is another gemstone with a long and storied history. Records of it in Babylon go back as far as 4000 BCE. The earliest records of emerald mining in Egypt date to 2000 BCE, and possibly even earlier. Wherever they were initially discovered, trade carried emeralds all over the ancient world. Like many other gems, beliefs and powers ascribed to emeralds began to emerge:
  • In Vedic astrology, emerald was (and still is) associated with the planet Mercury; carrying an emerald on your person was believed to strengthen one's Mercury-related abilities: intelligence, speaking, writing, communicating, traveling, and so on.
  • For the Egyptians, emeralds were associated with fertility and rebirth and were highly prized by Cleopatra.
  • Pliny the Elder said "nothing greens greener" than an emerald and held that gazing upon it improved eyesight. Romans believed that the gem ripened like a fruit, and that a pale stone, if left alone, would grow darker with age; they also believed that in the presence of falsehood an emerald would lose its color entirely, or even fall out of a setting.
  • Aristotle recommended wearing emeralds for business transactions and court appearances, as it was thought to improve your presence and authority.
  • In the Middle Ages, holding the gem in your mouth (don't swallow!) was believed to allow the individual to see the future and to discern falsehoods. It was also thought to help keep women chaste.
Emeralds were also part of the plunder the Spanish brought back from the New World—what the indigenous Muzo people thought of them is hard to tell, but at the very least they were a traditional part of religious and ceremonial garb.

Today, the best and richest sources of emeralds are still in Brazil and Colombia. Zambia is also another major producer. The output of the Egyptian mines, once the largest source of emeralds for the ancient world, continues today, but the stones it produces are no longer of any dazzling quality.

The Gachala Emerald, the largest emerald in the world. Found in Gachalá, Colombia. Currently residing in the Smithsonian Institute's mineral collection. Weight: 171.6 g, or about a third of a pound.

The chromium that creates the green in emeralds also leads to inclusions, imperfections, and fragility. This means that emeralds, while registering relatively high on the Mohs scale, are still quite brittle and delicate. As a result, they have been traditionally cut in an octagonal shape (as in the first picture: squares with the corners sliced off) to keep sharp, squared corners from chipping.This style is so associated with the stone that the such a shape is often referred to as an "emerald cut" regardless of the stone. That said, today you can find emeralds in any size or cut you want.

Most commercially available emeralds are treated to improve their clarity and stability. This is usually done with oil, which fills in any cracks and also binds the stone together; it also enhances color. Naturally occurring emeralds with dark, flaw-free coloring do exist, but they are extraordinarily rare and command a high price. They can also be synthetically grown. The US FTC requires that all synthetic or treated stones be marked as such, but something like 99% of emeralds on the market today are enhanced to some degree, so regardless of disclosure or markings, it's safe to assume any natural emeralds in your jewelry or collection has been oiled to a certain degree. Especially if you didn't pay an arm and a leg for them.

But hey—looking never hurt anyone, right? Here's a collection of gorgeous emerald items I've curated over on Etsy.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

101 in 1001: Walking the Lord of the Rings

I don't know when or how I first stumbled upon it, but the Walk to Rivendell challenge has been something I've known about for years now. After attempting and failing C25K three different times, I decided that running a race (eugh—running) was never something that was going to appeal to me.

But taking the One Ring of Power to Mt. Dûm with Frodo and Sam? Right up my alley!

I just completed the first leg of the challenge: getting from Hobbiton to Rivendell (on our stationary exercise bike). I'll be posting my progress every time I make a significant milepost like this, with help of a handy-dandy graphic. My progress is the light blue dotted line, in case that wasn't obvious.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Find: HannaRivka

The other night I was possessed with the idea of finding an old book from my childhood. I guess it was triggered by the "Vinni-Pukh" cartoons JV had stumbled across.

In my library as a kid, I'd had a handful of vintage Soviet publications (in English) that I can only assume were gifts from my Baba and Dede—they were a bit too new to be among the hand-me-down books I had from my dad (a college student wouldn't have much need for children's books). Only one remains, now, and in excellent condition: The Little Clay Hut.

The Little Clay Hut: Russian Folk Tales About Animals. Illustrated by Evgeny Rachev.

I'm glad I still have this one, at least, because the illustrations by Evgeny Rachev are great:

Evgeny Rachev illustration from The Little Clay Hut.
This is the only HQ scan I could find, unfortunately.

I had at least two others. The one I remembered the most distinctly has now been lost to time and room-cleanings—it was a half-inch thick paperback, with a picture of a girl with a lamb on the green cover, titled something like Mary Had a Little Lamb. I've always wondered what happened to it since I think it was a bilingual book and would have been helpful while I studied Russian. Now I just want to find a copy of it for nostalgia reasons.

I didn't find that one last night, but I did find the other book I'd owned that I'd totally forgotten about: Teryosha.

Teryosha, retold by Alexei Tolstoy.
And I found it in a treasure trove of Russian and Soviet children's books: Finland-based HannaRivka, owned by Svetlana Skryabina. I scoured her entire selection of Russian children's books, but my mystery green book wasn't there. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised to find Teryosha! I ordered it straight away.

The others seem to be in Russian, so they're only of interest to book collectors or language enthusiasts. I studied Russian for three semesters in college but almost nothing remains; I hope to take a few courses at Komvux once I finish my Swedish classes. Maybe then I can order and enjoy some of these other gorgeous books at HannaRivka!

Nine Golden Sons vintage Russian children's book from HannaRivka on Etsy.
Nine Golden Sons vintage Russian book from HannaRivka  on Etsy

Selected Poems for Children vintage Russian book from HannaRivka on Etsy

Selected Poems for Children vintage Russian book from HannaRivka on Etsy
Selected Poems for Children vintage Russian book from HannaRivka on Etsy

Selected Poems for Children vintage Russian book from HannaRivka on Etsy

Selected Poems for Children vintage Russian book from HannaRivka on Etsy
The Frog Princess vintage Russian book from HannaRivka on Etsy

Are there any beloved items from your childhood you just can't find anymore? Or have you ever found a replacement for something you thought was irreplaceable? 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Trek Thursday: The Worst-Ever TOS Episode

For a few months, I wrote for a British pop culture site styled on the model of The gig ended, but not before I wrote a massive, 20,000 word article ranking every Star Trek: TOS episode from worst to best. Unfortunately, the article sat in Internet development hell for two or three months before they closed my account ("We're focusing on moving forward with a smaller, dedicated staff of writers.") and so it will never see the light of day.

Until now.

Because I worked a lot on that article, dammit. My relationship may or may not have suffered for the month I spent hunched over the keyboard, finding something to say about even the most blasé and uninspired of episodes (in between the real, paid work I also had to do). I'd hate for it to all be for nothing.

I had the foresight to save the bulk of the writing on my own computer, so even though I may be locked out of my account, I still have access to my material. True, it's not going to be published in a monetized form (while the article was waiting in development hell, I signed up for a program on the site that would pay me a pittance per 1,000 page views), but that's better than not being published at all.

Plus, now I don't have to cram 78 episodes together into one post and I can take all the time and write all the commentary I damn well please.

Without further ado, let's begin Trek Thursday with the worst episode of them all.

#78. The Omega Glory

In case you forgot: The Enterprise finds a planet with "Yangs" and "Kohms," primitive people who are what's left after a planet-wide nuclear war. Surprise! It's a Cold War analogy!

TOS is infamous for plot contrivances. Most aliens are humanoid, everyone in the galaxy speaks English, etc. Ridiculous on the face of it, but coincidences I'm willing to overlook for the sake of a good story.

What makes "The Omega Glory" so awful, though, is that (1) it relies on what is maybe one of the worst plot contrivances of all time (2) as the third act twist. That image up there? That's basically a huge spoiler. It's one thing to beam down to the planet and ascertain within about five minutes or so that this is a parallel universe Cold War where America lost—okay, it's weak, but if you can make some lemonade out of that lemon I'll drink it. It's another to hold on to that and save it as some kind of genius reveal. It was a long, hard think to decide on the worst episode of TOS, but in the end it was the reliance on that reveal that put "The Omega Glory" on the bottom of the list.

People like to hate on Season 3 of TOS ("Spock's Brain" and "Way to Eden" are basically nothing more than punchlines in the fandom), but let's not kid ourselves into believing the first two seasons were anything less than consistent brilliance.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

2048 Accomplishment

I missed the 2048 bug until my friend Diana linked me to a Hangul version over the weekend. I hate to admit it but I compulsively played every spare minute I had until this moment today:


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Reading Styles Differ Between Digital and Traditional, Study Says

Is the digital world teaching us bad reading habits?

In a nutshell, when you read online, you do a lot of skimming for content, looking for keywords or core ideas, and passing over details (unless you're really interested). That's a style that doesn't work with some of the greats in literature: they often use complex syntax with all kinds of subclauses and periodically go on tangents.

I find it interesting that the woman interviewed for the article, Claire Handscombe, confessed to having such problems focusing on reading. (Also, trouble focusing on The Glass Bead Game? In my experience Herman Hesse is a lot more accessible than other literary giants. Girl, you may want to reconsider that MFA in creative writing if this is the case.) In my experience, it's been easy for me to shift from "Internet reading" to "book reading"; this may be due to the fact that I rarely skim, even online. Sure I skip over some articles in my RSS feed (who doesn't?), but I typically decide by the first paragraph if I'm going to skip the whole thing or not, then give everything else my full attention. Until I hit the next article I don't feel like reading, anyway.

It's no surprise to me, though, that comprehension is demonstrably better when you're reading a dead tree version than when you're reading an ebook version. I don't think that tactile sensation of holding a book, touching a page, or even the smell of the ink is just book fetishizing; I think it helps us immerse ourselves in the reading experience and therefore read better.

Do you think the Internet and social media has changed the way you read?