Wednesday, April 26, 2017

What I Read: Otto and the Flying Twins

I picked up Otto and the Flying Twins at a library sale some months ago, and in an odd coincidence (given the book's subject matter) I had it in my bag while I was stranded in town during the Asshole With A Beer Delivery Truck Incident at the beginning of the month. I finished it while I waited for the city to open up so I could go back home.

On the surface, Otto and the Flying Twins a whimsical fantasy story about an evil queen (though in an updated form of an evil councilwoman) trying to eradicate magic from the city, and the young boy and his magical friends who stop her. But dig a little deeper and it's hard to deny the parallels with pre-World War II Germany: the "magicos" are declared inferior and a threat to the city's well-being, relegated to ghettos or sent to work in moonstone mines.

It's hard to strike a balance between light whimsy and serious hardship, and my only complaint with the book is that Haptie never finds a good balance; despite some serious moments, the mood tilts very heavily towards "fun fantasy." Rather than address the very real problem that hatred and prejudice is built up over lifetimes and generations, Haptie compresses what was probably two or three centuries of anti-Semitic sentiment that contributed to the Holocaust into just a couple of years and the flimsiest of pretenses—essentially, one individual's personal grudge. (And greed, but arguably it's something like greed that drives people to blame The Other for economic woes, so that's not so unrealistic after all.)

But it's a fantasy book for middle grade readers, not Holocaust scholarship. I realize this is a very high-level nitpick, and I'm willing to overlook it because everything else about the book was delightful.

Anyone familiar with YA and middle grade tropes will see some of them refreshingly subverted or avoided. The titular Otto isn't The Chosen One; that's actually his dad, Albert who does much of the heroics (if off-screen). Otto is, of course, gifted with what everyone considers The Best Power Ever, but it's well-balanced: neither over-powerful enough to render his friends useless, nor so under-powered that we wonder why anyone values such a power in the first place.

When his mom finds out that Albert hid his magical heritage from her, she lashes out at him and spends most of the rest of the book angry at him, for ugly reasons (internalized prejudice) as well as respectable ones (building a life with someone only to find out they've lied about a very important part of themselves is bound to be a shocker). It's a response that feels very human, especially because she balances it with protecting her family. There's nothing worse than conflict driven by one or more parties being willfully stupid. Instead, Dolores does what she can to protect her undeniably magical family and keeps her frustration with Albert separate.

Otto's obligatory female sidekick, Mab, isn't presented as a love interest, which is refreshing—but this might be due to the target audience (the story feels and reads much more middle grade than YA). She's not entirely useful, it feels like, except to explain things to Otto (and by extension, the reader).

The language in this book is something to behold. There is an air of genuine whimsy in this that I found lacking in Harry Potter. (Well, either lacking or totally oppressive.) Normal Police, widges, dammerung, an Impossible List . . . Haptie takes well-worn fantasy tropes and adds her own unique spin to them.

Otto and the Flying Twins is the first in a trilogy of books. I get the impression that they were meant to be a longer series, but seeing as the last one was published in 2006, I think it's safe to say that the series stops at three books. If you can find it, get it. Otto and the Flying Twins is a great example of middle grade fantasy at its finest. More than that, it's a great jumping-off point to discuss prejudice and resistance—topics that are going to be quite relevant for the next few years.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Science Saturday: MARCH!

I'm marching for science today, and so can you! You can find a local march at the official March for Science website. If you're in Stockholm, I'll be a volunteer with the activities at Medborgarplatsen at the end of the march. Come say hi, listen to some awesome and knowledgeable speakers, and try some cool science stuff!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Friday 5: Nor Any Drop to Drink

Image courtesy Superfamous Images

What’s a memory you have of a nearby stream?

At some point during my elementary school years, our church congregation (or maybe just us kids) realized that the church's property didn't extend to the edge of the parking lot, but all the way across a neighboring field. We took this as a license to immediately tear through the long grass and down to the tree line to see if we could find anything, and were pleasantly surprised to find a crick we didn't know about. It was full of mint leaves and skunk cabbage and interesting rocks, and the whole thing felt distinctly magical.

We never went exploring there again, as far as I can remember. Something about it not being entirely church property. Or maybe parents told us that to keep us from running off and playing unattended.

What’s a good film scene or song lyric involving a river?

Hm. A two-fer first.

I have a great track by the indie band Brother called "River," but it's not on YouTube so that gem will just have to stay hidden for now.

What fond memory do you have of a lake?

My family spent a week at a hunting cabin in Vermont for maybe a dozen summers, right on Tinmouth Pond (officially Lake Chapman). No TV, no Internet, just the woods and the water. We always spent a day or two at the nearby Emerald Lake state park as well. I LOVERMONT!

What’s the most fascinating sea creature?

I was obsessed with dolphins for years, but as an adult I have to admit that they are . . . kind of assholes? The same goes for orcas (which apparently are technically dolphins, not whales?). So I don't know what to think about sea animals anymore. How about octopuses? They're cool.

What’s something that caused you to cry tears of laughter?

The only times I end up crying with laughter are those times where I'm laughing at how much I/someone else is laughing, usually over something not that funny, which then makes it even funnier, and then I'm laughing at myself laughing at someone laughing at the unfunny joke, and it just keeps snowballing. Like, for example, one time it was a really cheesy Weekly World News cover image of a fish with . . . hands? a human face? Something like that.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Friday 5: Gimme One Reason

This is the Friday 5 from April 7, which I didn't get around to answering for pretty obvious reasons.

Now I'm a week behind on Friday 5 posts, but that works out for me. The questions sometimes go up relatively late in the day (at least here in Stockholm), so it used to be a bit of a rush to get them out on time. Now I have a whole week to answer them!

First, some appropriate tunes:

What makes you unreasonably irritated?

I like to think that most of the things that irritate me are reasonable. ;)

What are you unreasonably particular about?

Punctuation! Spelling! Grammar! Language usage! But then, only if you pay me to be. Or if I think you're someone who should know better. (A book I was otherwise enjoying from Kindle Press talked about a "heart-warming antidote." I hope someone will fix that in an updated edition, because the author and the rest of the story deserve better!)

What’s something that’s unreasonably complicated?

Oh man, doing taxes. I don't mind paying them, because I understand they're a necessary part of a functioning society, but all of the surrounding paperwork is nightmarish, and I don't think it needs to be. The US, compared to many other countries, has a nightmarish and needlessly complicated tax-paying process (as opposed to needless or oppressive taxes). In Sweden, for example, most people can just pay their taxes by SMS. It's not quite that easy for me, as a freelancer, but it's also not so bad. There are also multiple umbrella companies out there whose sole purpose is to make the whole tax process easier for freelancers; I just made life harder for myself for no good reason.

I think if we revamped the tax-filing and tax-paying system and made it easier and less of a hassle, more Americans wouldn't be so incensed about paying taxes.

What are the best reasons for working in your field?

As far as teaching goes, it's immensely satisfying to feel like you are immediately and concretely making someone's life better. Your work isn't useless or pointless. Unfortunately, this idealism is too often leveraged against teachers, effectively bullying them into working beyond their paygrade or the original scope of their work, because how dare they prioritize something like money above their students?

My feelings about copyediting are similar. You're helping someone create the best product possible. You can see the results of your work immediately and you know that it matters (to the author, if no one else!). People at least seem to value copyeditors a little more than teachers—at least, their commitment to helping others isn't used as a bargaining chip to deny copyeditors the pay or resources they deserve and need to do their job.

When it concerns my #sciart dabbling, it's the wide array of awesome scientists, artists, and scientist-artists (or artist-scientists?) I've Internet-met since I started. So many cool projects and Kickstarters and people out there! But do I want to kick my STEM jewelry into higher gear? I don't know. I don't need to be running three different "businesses," I don't think.

What are some good reasons for the most recent silly purchase you made?

I don't typically make "silly" purchases. The closest thing to a silly purchase that I've made at all recently was some shredded cauliflower marketed as "cauliflower rice." I know it's a marketing tactic ("cauliflower rice" sounds more appealing than "shredded cauliflower"; people generally like rice more than they like cauliflower), but I just wanted some pre-shredded cauliflower. I knew it wasn't going to taste like rice, and I wasn't buying it because I thought it would, so I don't know if that really counts.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What I Read: The View From Flyover Country

Sarah Kendzior is a national treasure and we do not deserve her. I follow her on, and The Correspondent. The View From Flyover Country is a collection of previously-published essays, but it's a solid collection that saves you trouble of scurrying hither and yon to find her work. The only issue is that they're from 2013 to 2015. Not too long ago, normally, but suddenly that feels like decades rather than years. And if you want her more recent work, well, see above.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Talky Tuesday: April 7, 2017

I wasn't expecting to do another Talky Tuesday post so soon after my last one, but then some asshole hijacked a beer delivery truck and drove it down a popular pedestrian thoroughfare in Stockholm so here we are!

Obviously, I'm fine. I wasn't particularly close to Drottninggatan when this happened, so I was never in danger and I was spared having to witness real-life violence and gore. That said, it's a part of Stockholm I know well and have walked many times before, so it is a little surreal. Minimally so, but it's there.

I'm worried about the near future of Sweden, and the rise of white nationalism. I'm worried about my friends who are fellow immigrants but with the bad luck to be from the "wrong" countries and to have "wrong" names. I want their children to grow up safe and happy in the same Sweden I do, and I don't know how much I can do to ensure that.  I'm worried about refugee quarters being terrorized and burned, in Sweden and elsewhere.

Here's an image from a "love demonstration" on the following Sunday. I'm in there, somewhere, maybe. (I showed up late so I only made the tail end.) Maybe there's hope.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What I Read: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

I received The Radium Girls in a free ebook form from NetGalley, which is both good and bad. Good, because I was possibly spared pictures of jawbones rotting out of women's mouths. Bad, because an ebook means I had a harder time tracking all the names and dates (and also that I read it while commuting and so often got misty-eyed in public, which is not something I feel totally comfortable with!). And I also didn't get to see all the before photos of the radium girls, which is probably how they would prefer to be remembered.

I knew about the radium girls in the vaguest of senses thanks to an offhand mention in The Radioactive Boy Scout. Silverstein mentions that scores of workers (women, mostly) in the dial-painting factories became ill and even died from their work, but since that's largely a footnote in the story of David Hahn, Silverstein doesn't go into much detail about it. I didn't think about it any further until last year, when I saw that an available book on NetGalley was Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, adapted from and inspired by Melanie March's play These Shining Lives.

I received the book in December and just finished it a week ago. That's unusually slow going for me, I have to admit. Part of it was life (I was busy with Swedish), part of it was the format (ebooks are not great for me when there are lots of names and dates to keep track of), and part of it was the ghastly content.

I have to admit, I was not entirely prepared for what I read. I know enough about radiation poisoning to know that the women employed in these factories suffered, and suffered a lot. That's a biological reality I knew going in. It was how steadfastly the companies refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing that was the most shocking and the most viscerally upsetting. Their legal battles dragged on for years—over a decade. It's one thing to lose an arm or the use of your legs and have a workman's comp case take a few years. It's another thing for the case to go on for 13 years when you're dying of cancer. Not to mention these companies did the most in trying to dodge responsibility, both in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. They insisted that the sick, dying, and dead women were already in poor health when they started work; they refused to release medical examination records; they insisted that the cause of death in a few cases was syphilis, not radium poisoning, thereby adding an extra dose of slut-shaming indignity to it all. They claimed in one case that radium was a poison and therefore not covered by existing workman's compensation laws; after the law was changed to include poison, they turned around in another case and claimed that radium wasn't poisonous at all.

People talking about #resisting in this weird new era we live in also talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with stories of people being courageous and doing the right thing. I think that makes The Radium Girls a book we should all be reading, especially given that organizations like the EPA and OSHA seem to be on the public's shit list. Yet these are the organizations that cleaned up the mess that United States Radium left in Orange, NJ (the clean-up cost the equivalent of millions of dollars; USR paid a few hundred thousand); that protected all future employees who handled radium or other dangerous substances in their work.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. If there's any takeaway from The Radium Girls, surely it's that. The profit motive will squelch all but the strongest moral imperative, whether it's a luminous watch factory in New Jersey or sweatshop labor in Bangladesh. Robust worker protection and compensation laws are a society's most effective protection against large-scale corporate injustice; "a shield to protect, and not a sword to destroy" the humanity of workers, in the words of the Ottawa plaintiffs' lawyer, Lev Grossman.

His son, Len Grossman, has scanned and made public his father's scrapbook surrounding the case. It's worth browsing.

The Radium Girls is set to be published in the US in May this year (it's already out in the UK). If you can't get a preview copy from NetGalley or from the UK now, I really hope you'll pick The Radium Girls in May. Until then, there are a couple other books on the subject:

Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy
Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform

Other books touch on the radium girls tangentially:

Romancing the Atom
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

There's also the documentary Radium City, which focuses on the history of the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, IL.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Talky Tuesday: How I Facebook

I should be listing things in the store, but it's a little slow going right now. There is kind of a lot of other stuff going on, I guess? So, without much new stock to post about, I figured now would be a good time to talk about Facebook. Specifically: how I use Facebook, and how I've changed my interaction patterns with it.

Facebook, once the place where you creeped on your roommates, high school classmates, and party hook-ups, is now the de facto social networking site for much of the English-speaking world. It's also become the de facto news site for much of the English-speaking world, for better and worse.

I don't want to talk about "real news" versus "fake news" today. I want to talk about something a little less partisan and a little more sinister: "social feed" versus "news/entertainment feed."

A while ago, I thought long and hard about why I use Facebook. A short list:

  • To keep in touch with friends and family that are far away. (And I have many that are all over the world.)
  • To keep in touch with nearby friends when I'm too busy to see them in person.
  • To find out about, attend, or organize events, large and small. 
  • To network and pose questions to professionals in my field.
  • To find support and encouragement.
  • To have an easy-to-find, organized online gallery of my jewelry.

Weird, what's not on there? Cat pictures, puns from George Takei, and news.

But every time I "like" a cat picture, a George Takei pun, or a news story, I tell Facebook show me more of this!. And so the posts I probably really want to see, more than cats or George Takei, get de-prioritized. Which defeats the whole point of why I want to use Facebook in the first place.

Math Babe is probably who got me thinking about my Facebook usage from a machine learning perspective. After some reflection, I decided:

Facebook is for people, not for consumerism.

(The hypocrisy of my saying this while also having a Facebook page for my jewelry does not escape me.)

This boils down to three large shifts in my Facebook-using behavior.

(Less) Sharing is Caring

I still follow Facebook pages of businesses, blogs, or people I like, of course. And if they share something I really like, I'll still share or like it, if I'm in the mood—but only if it's original content from the person, business, or blog itself. I don't follow you on Facebook so I can learn what you think is funny; I follow you on Facebook because I like you.

So I no longer like or share memes from huuuuuuuuge meme factory pages. I invest more likes and shares into the things that you, my friend, the person I care about wrote yourself. If I don't know, or at least know of, the person who made the original post, I'll pass.

Filter via Address Bar

I also made this URL my default Facebook bookmark: This is subtly different from the URL you get when you click on the "Home" button, which is this: The latter includes posts from groups, pages, and bumps up old stories that a friend of yours shared or even just commented on every time it gets a new comment. The former is just posts from your friends (that you've opted to follow) in the order they post them. No pages, no groups.

If I want to get down to business (and defeat the Huns) (I haven't even seen Mulan, guys), then I check, and I see only posts from my assorted groups: social, work, support, whatever. If I want to catch up on the blogs, cool musicians, and art projects I follow, I check There's not a lot you can control on Facebook, but being able to control that much is something. It's nice to be able to say, "Right now I want to check in with my friends" or "I'm in the mood to chat with some activists" or "I wonder what my fellow sword-swallowers are talking about" and then be able to navigate more or less straight to that discussion.

Tinfoil Hattery

I'm also wary (not "weary"!) of the new "reactions" you can have to a story: angry, sad, funny, and love, in addition to like. I'm sure Facebook wouldn't roll out something like that without plans to use the data to further tweak their algorithms. Tempting as it is to click the "sad" reaction button on a post, if it really is a tragic incident, I take the extra time to post a comment with a sentiment or hell, even a smiley. (Same if it's a really happy post. One of my friends just had a baby and I've been making creative use of the Prickly Pear stickers in the comments.) Facebook is probably tracking that content as well, but by using half a second more thought to engage with the content, I'm hopefully at least being a better friend? (And supplying something like data noise. I hope.)

Bonus: The Cavalry

I also use AdBlock, AdBlockPlus, and Fluff-Busting Purity to deal with "suggested" posts and the sidebar advertising, but you either already know how to use them, or someone else has told you about them. (If you don't know, comment or Tweet at me, and I'll be glad to help you out!)

So. I hope you like me enough that you've liked me on Facebook. You don't have to; I'm kind of bad at posting there, anyway. But even if you don't, I hope you'll think a little more carefully about how you interact with Facebook, and that this post helped you have an even marginally better Facebook experience?