Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Are We Already Cyborgs?

I wear clothes to enhance my thermal control, shoes to enhance my ability to cross hard ground and glasses to extend my vision, does this make me a cyborg?

Definition of a Cyborg

Collins online dictionary defines cyborg as:
(in science fiction) a living being whose powers are enhanced by computer implants or mechanical body parts

Oxford online dictionary has it as:
A fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body.

I think the definition boils down to this:
A person whose physical abilities are extended by electronic or mechanical parts added to the body.

I've cut out the 'science fiction' and 'fictional' bits because I think the definitions are out of date.

What makes a human a Cyborg?

Do you think of clothes as tools?  They are tools because they help us do things our bodies alone cannot.   I live in a part of the world where, without body insulation tools, I would freeze to death in the winter, or have to fly south (on rainy days that’s appealing, if expensive).  I am wearing a wool and cotton protective exoskeleton as I type this.  Now that makes jeans and jumpers sound cool.  Clothes are not implants so like spectacles probably don't make us cyborgs.

I began writing a story with characters having the equivalent of cell phones implanted in their heads.  I thought it a natural extension of today’s technology.  Then I added a camera with zoom and infra-red feeding images to an in-vision display for good measure.  I was describing characters having normal interactions, but they had the equivalent of ‘texting’ brain-to-brain, could see in total darkness and could have Internet data streaming through their vision at any time.  Am I writing about cyborgs?   

I probably am, but they are not the mechanical scary things often portrayed in fiction, say the Borg from Star Trek or the Daleks in Dr Who who are cyborgs too:  they have a living creature inside them.

Back to real humanity, which is sadly scary, deadly and ruthless even when not technically enhanced.

I thought “yes”, my characters are cyborgs, but am I?  I have fillings in my teeth, aren’t those implants?  They enhance my chewing for sure.  Are earrings, nose rings and naval rings implants?  One could say those are adornments.  The question becomes:  are adornments enhancements?  Note to the reader: I wear a ring; no earrings, nose-rings or naval rings.

What I am saying is that humans already have mechanical implants for medical reasons and decoration.

Medical Implants

Fillings and false teeth are a start.  There is a whole swath of medical implants from heart valves, insulin pumps, plates to repair damaged skulls, artificial hip joints to cochlear implants for improving hearing.

More visible are replacements for lost limbs, even glass-eyes are an implant to enhance appearance.  I know of people who’ve had the lenses in their eyes replaced and others who have had their natural lenses laser etched.

Imagine a person who had every conceivable surgical repair and mechanical replacement.  Would that make them a cyborg?  Does it take just one to make us part machine?

You could argue these are forced by need, not choice, but that is not what the definition says.  It is about extending human capabilities.  If I lost a limb, gaining a mechanical replacement would extend my capability.  

Do we become cyborgs when we choose to have our bodies changed rather than fixed?  My eyes are usable.  If later they weren’t and someone offered me a surgical fix, I could choose that replacement.

Implants by Choice

Tattoos are a body enhancement and one done by choice.  A person decides their fairly plain, by animal standards, skin, could be improved with geometric patterns, picture or words of meaning.  Those are permanent modifications implanted under the skin.  Not electrical or mechanical so that wouldn’t make them a cyborg; however, there are others go for mechanical body modifications.

There have been more than a few people who have had extreme tattoos or body modifications.  If you are not squeamish simply search for ‘extreme body modifications’ on the Internet.  WARNING: some of them are disturbing indeed. 

Amongst those images you will see humans with stretched necks and lip extensions, not done for modern fashion but ancient fashion.
The women of the Kayan Tribe in Northern Thailand use rings to stretch their necks beyond the norm.  That is a mechanical enhancement if ever there was one and a permanent change to the body too.

Modern cosmetic surgery is a misnomer, we have been doing it for centuries; however do silicone 'enchancements' make us cyborgs?  That's another Internet search "ancient costmetic surgery". Be surprised.

We are Cyborgs.  We are Humans.

I think we are cyborgs.  I think we have been for centuries.  I don't think we are the fictional machines like the Borg or even RoboCop.  I think we're nearer the Six Million Dollar Man an ordinary man repaired and enhanced.  OK my fillings don't give me super-strength, but they give me a capability I wouldn't have without them.

When we absorb modern technology within us, say built-in Wi-Fi, we are following a path well trodden by our ancestors.  These will enhance us and change us, but it does not make us less human.
I’m looking forward to eyes with a zoom facility and will continue to be as harmless as I have always been.

Useful Links

Friday, 28 August 2015

The Clues in Our Clothes

As a child I was rapt by the stories of Sherlock Holmes and particularly how his scalpel-sharp intellect collected the subtle clues around him to unravel personal stories.  He could spot an old soldier recently returned from India by his tanned appearance and aged army-issue boots on his feet, or a lady's maid down on her luck from worn clothing carefully mended.  As I grew I wondered how he would get on in the present.

Today army boots might be store-bought and tanned skin could be from a recent holiday in the Sun topped up at a salon.  Damaged or rather 'distressed' clothes may be new that day.  I am always amazed at that, especially when I saw some one sail for £300.

Clothes are cheaper now and our roles are no longer defined as they once were by the costumes we wear.  For work I wear a boring shirt and tie while some of my colleagues look like surfer dudes and I used to work with a woman who tended to dress like a pantomime Peter Pan.  After work, I keep the shirt and ditch the tie.  I'm still boring though.  Would that have foxed the Great Detective, probably not.

Past Clothing Clues

When I started researching different historical periods I learnt a little about the clothing clues of old, then realised there were modern ones too. Modern Mr Holmes would have to be even sharper, but then again he was always sharp.

Here's some historical ones, a few of which have stayed with us.

Wedding Rings were used thousands of years ago and are still a potent symbol.

Hair Up or Hair Down In Victorian and Edwardian England there was a define style to married and unmarried women, including whether the hair was worn up or down. Up for married, down for unmarried.  For Christian Saxon women it was covered or uncovered to equal 'available' or 'unavailable'.

The Scallop Shell  In the Middle Ages, if you were on a pilgrimage, you would wear a seashell. Particularly a Scallop shell.

Duty Arm Band  When policemen first started in the UK, because they were instructed to wear their uniforms when off-duty, donned an armband signifying when they were on-duty.  This lasted long after the rule change and may have had to do with the cost of clothing too.  Maybe the policemen didn't have a second change of clothes to look smart in.

Tattoos  Popular now as personal decoration for many years there were more significant reasons for permanently marking ones flesh.  Tribal markings for one, not forgetting sailors, who were often tattooed in the belief it would help identify their bodies if lost overboard or horribly disfigured.

Then there were all those past rules over which social class could or could not wear particular materials or colours.  Known in Elizabethan England as the Sumptuary Laws similar ones were common all over the world and throughout history, basically it was to stop the poor looking like the rich.  Funny enough through most of history people have copied the rich, though today the rich often try to dress like they're poor - those ripped clothes again - which is a twist.  My favourite was the rules on hats, because I like a good hat - I have weakness for bad ones too.  There was the 'statute cap' where it was the law to wear a woollen hat on Sundays and holidays.  I'm doubtful beanies would have been acceptable.

Livery Uniforms and clothing with insignia of your employer.  A sign of your loyalties and protection.  Almost like, well actually just like, gang styles today.  In the past, where most parts of the world had little official law enforcement, wearing a costume that said:  'I have a Boss and he has money and power.' could be the only thing keeping you safe.

So what are the modern clues?

Modern Clothing Clues

Here are some clues in our modern clothing.  I'm not talking fashion labels, it's the more subtle stuff, though I'll start with the obvious.  Mainly I'll talk about Western Europe because that's where I am, but other things will slip in.

Livery  Shop workers, hotel staff, repair men of big companies still wear liveries.  Even I do, when supporting an event.  I will wear a T-shirt with my company logo on it.  I actually get free T-shirts for some of the projects I've worked on.  I'm saying: 'I worked on this and I'm proud of my work.'  I doubt its giving any protection, though I am heavily insured when working for my employer.  I am the member of an Institution a guild equivalent, I suppose, but don't wear a guild badge, though I know some modern professionals who still do, even if it's a sticker on their van.

Wedding Rings  They are still present, but now both genders wear them.  A man who chooses not to is saying something too.

Writing on Clothes  Whether it's a jokey T-shirt saying 'I'm with stupid' or a company uniform, our clothing often has words on it.  What it is actually saying is: most of our society can read.  Literacy is high here.  In the past clothing didn't have words on it because people couldn't read.

Jokes on Clothes  That's saying: this is a relaxed society, we can have fun.  In many past cultures frivolity was seen as unbecoming except at special times.

Variety of Clothing Everyday I see long skirts, short ones, trousers of every length on every type of person.  T-shirts, dress shirts and suits ranging from casual to super formal. Find some Victorian photos or look at paintings of times gone by.  The variety in colours, fabrics and styles is not there.  It's the most wonderful clue that we are free.  We can show as much or as little flesh as we want, have green hair, dress like a 'Goth' or a tennis player - I go for Arctic explorer - we are free to do so.  Judgement of others may be personal, but we're free to be ridiculed for looking like we've been inflated (that's me), but there's no law against it.  Find modern pictures of where you think there is less freedom, I bet you'll see more uniform dress codes.

Technology  A belt, maybe some keys and a good knife was common tech for most of human history.  Then watches and glasses - don't forget unnatural vision improving kit is technology - were added now it can be ear-buds, headphones, cameras, phones, minicomputers.  We are connected in a high-technology age.

When you walking about look at what your fellow travellers are wearing, see what the clues are about the society you're in even if it is as simple as being in the heartland of a local sporting team.

Modern False Clothes

And now for things that can be taken the wrong way...

Sports Clothes In my town and many others I have visited you'd be mistaken for thinking society is the fittest, most exercise obsessed there has every been and baseball is the most popular sport in the world.  I see more baseball caps than any other hat.  Most of them probably don't know the New York Mets from the Jets (for non-sports fans, the Mets are the baseball team).  Trainers seem to be the most popular shoe and track suits, sweat pants and all the other sporting paraphernalia is on show.

Camouflage This one might be me, but I see a lot of camo clothing in my town.  Most of it worn by civilians in a town of steel and concrete.  A brick pattern or slate grey would be better.  It might say: 'I'm just visiting town, mostly I'm out in wilds.'  When of course they're not.

Go looking for clues, even the false ones, but don't judge your fellow humans, there are many reasons for what we wear and we're all trying to look good.  It's the definition of good that is very personal.

Useful Links

Guinness World Records News on Mr Homes. He is the most represented character in TV and Film.
History of the Wedding Band The Symbol has been with us for so long.
Learn about Maori Tattoos here. Tribal tattoos are popular, do you know what they mean?

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Tunnel Vision on the Internet and How to Avoid it.

Someone once told me: 'If everyone is looking one way then look the other.'

I remember doing this at Stonehenge and was amazed.  Everyone else was looking at these big stones arranged with effort and skill unimaginable with the technology of the time and I looked at the fertile plain surrounding them, the many burial mounds and the flow of traffic from the nearby road.  Also the military exercise that was under way in the woods nearby.

That was why Stonehenge was there: it was the centre of trading, farming and a safe place to live. More than a place to watch the sunrise, it was where a community grew and so did it's influence, it was a seat of power and that power didn't come from a ring of stones, despite what many New Age folk would like to believe.  Like a palace or cathedral isn't the power, but the sign of the power.

The Internet is an ever expanding realm of information and yet most people hover round a few islands of comfort without plunging out into the ocean of information.  Ask yourself how many websites did you visit today?  Were they the same ones as you visited yesterday?  Google will point you to what you want, Wikipedia will have an article on the subject that you want to learn about, but, and it's a big BUT, is it re-enforcing your beliefs and telling you what it's telling everyone else?

I write and paint, I'm also a creative - I am an engineer - and if you do the same as everyone else, collect the facts everyone else collects you will do what everyone else does.  It's like reading the same newspaper (or news sites) everyday.  Your best mate is telling you the news you want to hear.  Me, I read stuff I from the other guy's point of view, just in case the other guy is right.

If you want to be creative you need to find what others don't, see the world anew or at least sideways.  Look where everyone else isn't looking.  Often you'll be surprised, sometimes horrified.  In my researches I once discovered a propaganda site preaching hate and showing terrible things to justify other terrible things.  That was an extra education for me.  That's a warning:  you will find things off the beaten path and sometime it'll be a tiger ready to bite you.

Here are my top tips for avoiding tunnel vision on the Internet.

1. Avoid Wikipedia

It's a great tool, but it's where everyone goes.  Use it to validate other searchers, but check you aren't in a Wikipedia loop where it was the source for a site that is a source for Wikipedia.  There is the notorious 'Flange of Gorillas (or baboons)' issue.  Look up its derivation and be surprised.
How to avoid this look for the references, find an expert's name and search on that.  Make sure the expert hasn't used Wikipedia too.

In my blog entries you'll often find a useful links section.  It rarely points to Wikipedia. I do use it, it is a good tool, but I will try to find something deeper.

2. Move off Google's First Page

Apparently when people search the Internet, they use Google and few go beyond the first page of results.  If you want to do something different click on the second, third or tenth page.

3. Try other Search Engines

Google is great tool, but if you want different and new try other search engines, compare them to see if they come up with the same answers as Google.

My personal favourites are:
www.duckduckgo.com - it doesn't track you, so it can't learn what you like.
www.dogpile.com - it searches other search engines so you can spot the well worn trails.
www.ask.co.uk - it follows a different sort of logic

Related to my last post Space is too Big for Rockets but not for Humans why not search on 'How to Build a Canoe' and compare results.

Want some more ideas, why not try the Search Engine List?

5. Find an Enthusiast's Site

I propose you find many of them so you can compare what they are saying.  Have you noticed there is a lot of 'compare' in this article?  Not, very subtle, I know, but you need to check and check again.  Especially if it is something you already 'know' to be true.  You'll be amazed what you think you know isn't right at all; for example: by the time Christopher Columbus sailed the Atlantic most people knew it was round and had known that for a very long time.  What makes a good story isn't necessarily true.

I was researching European unarmed combat techniques, which sadly vanished under the popularity firearms.  I found this site: www.thearma.org which is a really well constructed and researched site.  It was a real eye-opener and very educational.  I didn't stop there.  One of the things that makes this site a good one is that they list their sources of information, so of course I could research some more.

6. Find an Enthusiast

There are people who are full of enthusiasm for their subject and want to share it.  Try science clubs or night school classes.  If you're interested in history, there are re-enactment societies. Where I live, where you have to wade through history in big boots, there are dozens of groups who put on displays.  These guys are the best educators I know.  Often, after the display or show, they'll be open for the general public to wander up and have a chat.

From a Roman group I learnt the Romans could make spring steel and had an understanding of magnification.  I also got to try on armour and handle a gladius (sword) and pugio (dagger).  That is something the Internet can't do.

From a Victorian re-enactor I learnt that corsets become more flexible - that's a relative term - the longer you wear them because body heat effects the stiffening material (bone or steel).  Oh yeah and floor-length skirts wick up water from wet grass so although not fashionable working folk had shorter skirts for practical reasons.

7. Start your Search with a Book

Go and find a book on the subject.  Often they have more depth and validation than Internet sources. Hey I'm just writing this as I go along, which is the core of most of the Internet.  What I am writing has not been vetted, checked or even edited by anyone else (apologies for any spelling errors).  Books have editors, professional readers and non-fiction ones often have knowledgeable reviewers too, though with the rise of self-publication, that may be less true than it used to be.  It helps with the fact checking.

8. Talk to your local Librarian

Librarians know a lot, not just about books, but the local community too.  They will not only help you find the books you want, even if you didn't know you needed them.  They will also know about local societies, up-coming exhibits and other things that will help you find new information.  Don't forget your local museum either, they are a gem of knowledge in every town.  When did you last go into yours?

I realise I'm finishing my list of ways to avoid tunnel vision on the Internet by saying don't just look on the Internet.  I did say at the start the best way to see something different is to look in the opposite direction.  Off-line is as opposite as you can go.  Happy researching.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Anne R. Allen's Blog: 6 Bad Reasons to Write a Novel…and 6 Good Ones

Anne R. Allen's Blog: 6 Bad Reasons to Write a Novel…and 6 Good Ones: by Anne R. Allen S o you think you want to write a novel? You're not alone. According to a New York Times study done a decade a...

Anne R. Allen's blog entry is the best one to summarise why I write.  Rejections and all the other set backs, can't stop that endless sleet of ideas and characters.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Space is too Big for Rockets, but not for Humanity

On the 14th July 2015 a space probe, New Horizons, shall whiz by Pluto gathering data.

Travelling at 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph) that seems like it's really fast, except the solar system is huge and it took nine years to reach its destination.

Just in case you don't appreciate the scale of space, here's some mind boggling facts:

London, England to Sydney, Australia is 16,983km (10,553 miles).

The little spacecraft has travelled over 294,412 times the distance approximately 5 billion km (3 billion miles).

Our nearest star is over 4 light years away so it would take New Horizons around 74,000 years to get there. If it were heading in the right direction.

Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is the furthest human object from Earth and, at the time of writing, it is almost 20 billion km away.  It's faster than New Horizons yet it will take 40,000 years to reach a star.

Even travelling at the speed of light it would take roughly 18 hours to reach where Voyager 1 is from Earth and it's just 'crawled' past the outer reaches of our solar system.

Here's one more fact, New Horizons couldn't carry enough fuel to slow down to study Pluto for more than a fly-by photoshoot or it would have been too heavy to travel so fast.

Yep, Space is big and our rockets are not good enough.

Even our way of getting to low earth orbit, 500 to 800 km (310 to 500 miles), involves huge cylinders of fuel weighing hundreds of tonnes to deliver a handful of said mass to where humans want it. Mostly we throw those cylinders, the engines and the electronics involved away on the journey up there.  Someone once described it as building an airliner then throwing it away on the journey until the seat is the only thing that reaches the destination.

We could be more inefficient, but we'd really have to try very hard.  That said it's still the best method we have.  Yes, there are many engineers trying to solve this challenge and make things better.  SpaceX  is working on reusable vehicles.  Airbus Defence and Space, who are the behind the Ariane launchers, unveiled their Adeline concept recently exploring  being less wasteful.  Then of course there is the joy-ride of Vrigin Galactic.  I'm less certain that's going to lead anywhere.  Our exploring ancestors never crossed oceans for the fun of it.  Christopher Columbus's business plan was as important as his navigation.

Our means of travelling the solar system, let alone to other star systems is awful.  They are slow, expensive, dangerous and the only option we have.  Does this mean we'll be forever trapped on our little blue dot, occasionally, when the politics is right, desperately jumping the void when one part of humanity wants to prove something to another part of humanity?  I hope not.  Though showing off is a billion times better than us killing each other to prove a point.

As a SF fan, engineer and dreamer it saddens me.  Surely we must be able to do better?

Stories like Star Wars and Star Trek have humanity, or a flavour there of, zipping to stars in no time at all, yet we can't do it.  NASA used to have a site called Warp Drive When, which explored all the theories of going far faster than rockets and why they were not yet practical.  Pick your search, say 'methods of travelling faster than light' to see what are the latest ideas are.  Complex, expensive and energy hungry, none of them are likely soon and very few, if any, may be possible in the future.

None of them are as easy slipping a pack on your back or harnessing a mule to find the trail yet explored.  It could be argued that the rockets of today are like the galleons of yesteryear, complex, expensive and dangerous.  If we go back to Columbus his ships were rentals.  You can rent a rocket, if your pockets are deep enough.

So are we stuck?  Setting aside the political inclination because the expense tends to lead to governments being involved and humanity's general mood can switch from inward looking to outward looking in the blink of an eye, I think no.

Humans expand their influence.  I don't mean politically, I'm mean we tend to spread out.  Wandering tribes tends to villages, villages tend to cities, cities to nations and nations to unions of nations (as much as we maybe uncomfortable joining with are age-old enemies).  We will fill up this planet and we will need more resources and space.  There'll be cities in skyscrapers, ones underground and others floating on the sea, but eventually we'll look straight up.  Hopefully we're realise it's a better investment to visit new worlds than buy more killing tools to claim someone else's living space.  I truly hope that.

How will we do it with our feeble rockets?  I don't know how, but I know we will.  How do I know this?  Because of canoes.  

Canoes are about the worst way of travelling an ocean.  Fragile things you'd be foolish to risk your life to on a long journey over the deep sea.  They are very slow, just like rockets.  However, our ancient polynesian cousins did just that.  If, dear reader, you are a modern polynesian then max respect to your ancestors.  They built awesome canoes, but canoes nonetheless and slowly, island by island explored the biggest ocean on our planet.  Here's an excellent article from the Smithsonian about how they did it.

So successful were they some modern scientists couldn't believe they did it.  Thor Heyerdahl who built a boat to drift in the opposite direction tried to prove a counter theory.  He invoked the thing I hate most: accident achievement.  Nope these great explorers set their minds to it and did it, no accident at all.

That's how we will do it, space rock by space rock leaning to live in places we've never lived before, probably changing ourselves so much so our cousins from elsewhere think we're far too different to be the same people.  We'll do it with 'rubbish' rockets until the solar system is teeming with life and then, ever so slowly we will reach out for the stars.

Along the way we might work out how to go much faster because the mind that invented canoes eventually came up with rockets and they're the best canoe we have.

Useful Links

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Mindsets: Meeting a Medieval Monarch

I once met a Medieval monarch, but didn't know it until years later.

When I write stories set in the past, or some fantastical equivalent, I'm out to tell a fun tale not produce a historical treatise.  I aim to give the reader a sense of the time and place, slipping in touches that make people realise it's not the world they know.  In SF circles it's called world-building, I suppose in other genres it would be called world-building.  Not only does landscape and surroundings matter but what the rails our minds run on are important too.

Last time I said that the idea of 'some things never change' was cobblers (see teenage girls now and four hundred years ago).  I should have said similar things shift into other places.

So what about meeting a medieval monarch then?

Years ago I caught a bit of a TV interview with Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister of my country.  She was the first woman to hold the job and a reporter asked her what it was like.  I think the interviewer meant 'What's it like being a woman Prime Minister?'.  A care with words is vital in life and this mistake produced the answer: it was like being a medieval monarch because those closest to you are the ones who'll wield the dagger.  Mrs Thatcher wasn't thinking gender, just about the role.  Funny thing is, many real life Queens of the past thought the same way because being the sovereign is bigger than gender.

It made my mind spin because I realised she was spot on.  As Prime Minister, leader of her political party, she was the Power.  Her  largesse would make someone a minister or head of a powerful parliamentary committee.  In fact many jobs and positions of power were her gifts to bestow or remove exactly like an absolute monarch.  It was equally true her bitterest enemies, other political parties, could barely touch her with her phalanx of supporters providing protection out of loyalty or knowing when she fell so would they.

Her own observation was true: it would be her 'lords and lieutenants' that would put the knife in when she weakened and that's what happened, when her grip on power wasn't absolute she was taken down by those closest to her.  Thankfully real knives weren't involved.

When she died in 2013 some people burnt effigies in the streets and had parties, if that's not medieval behaviour I don't know what is.

So what about meeting a medieval monarch then?

I have not met a Prime Minister, but when I was a student I did encounter the equivalent.

I had this summer job at a company's European HQ in a seventeen storey office block.  When the workers trooped in every morning the two lifts and stairs quickly choked and it could take an age to get to your desk.  I'm an early bird and always arrived just before the crush.  That day I saw what I thought was an empty lift and leapt in just as door was closing.

I was wrong.  I shared the small volume with this huge man, with a long face and a hunched form.  He breathed like a death rattle.  For all his expensive clothing he looked like Frankenstein's monster and sounded like Frankenstein's monster who had smoked far too much.  He stared at me like I was something on his shoe, actually he stared at me like he didn't know what I was.

I go for cheery harmless because that's what I am.  I tried a smile and a 'hello'.  The express lift appeared to be on a go-slow because it felt like hours of his rattling breathing and stare, his expression never changing.  No word of response.  I did wonder if the poor old codger was on his last legs and positioned myself so that if he collapsed his great bulk won't crush me.  Perhaps his silence was a warning he was having a stroke or I was hearing his last desperate breaths.

Eventually I left at my floor puzzled by the encounter.  Later I found out the man was the 'Head of Europe' in charge of everything on this side of the Atlantic and a major 'player' in the highest levels of this big company.  When people spotted him entering a lift, they let him have it all to himself.  Me, I probably hadn't registered anyone in my haste to get to work - yes, I am an eager beaver even now - and simply invaded his personal space.

I don't think he was being rude, he probably wasn't angry with me as an upstart sharing his conveyance, I suspect I surprised and puzzled him.  Who is this smiley young idiot in the lift? he thought.

That's the other side of being a medieval monarch people start to behave differently.  He was taking the lift like everyone else except everyone else gave him space.  The actor Martin Sheen played the President of the United States in the TV show 'The West Wing' and was asked how to you behave like the President.  He said, it was like playing a king in Shakespeare, you behave normally and it's the response of those around you that creates the aura of the ruler.  Like the wind, power is invisible, it's effects are what you see.  I bet you can think of a good number of movie and pop stars, usually surrounded by entourages, who forget the laws of the land apply to them too.  It's very easy when you're in the centre of that 'aura', the world becomes a very different place.  Like never having to share a cramped lift with a dozen workers still two minutes from their first coffee of the day.

Through no fault of his, the very powerful man I met, working on a floor all to himself, had become isolated from his 'subjects'.  All he knew about his company came from his 'lords and lieutenants' and all they heard about the 'peasants' or workers was from their 'lords and lieutenants'.  There is an inevitable disconnect, that can be fatal for a company or career.

It works the other way too, ordinary folk get annoyed at those in power because 'they don't know how the other half live' and yet they are doing the isolating because that enveloping mantle of power works both ways.  We still think like medieval people too.  We pick leaders on height and ridicule short ones as in some way defective.  I think we're still looking for warrior leaders, those that stand out, people we think, deep down can handle themselves in battle. I think that's one of the reasons women have problems, physical presence is still important, now that is medieval in attitude.

When you're writing a story about a king, queen or even a pop star remember that isolation and remember the aura.  Imagine what it's like when everyone cheers (or boos) when you enter a room.  Consider the effect on your behaviour if when you meet someone they ask for your signature or hold themselves away from you like you might lash out at any second.

Medieval monarchs are long gone - in most places - but the mindset is alive and well and living inside us all.

By the way, I never saw the 'Head of Europe' again and wonder if I would have let him have the lift all to himself, if I did.  I probably would have deferred to my 'king'.

Useful Links

Learn more about Margaret Thatcher here  - I suggest you do a lot more research than just this, which could be called a 'fan site' for the former Prime Minister.  In the UK she divided opinion like no other.
A more neutral summary about Margaret Thatcher - I still advise reading more before forming an opinion.

IMBD's Entry on Martin Sheen

Summary of Taller People earning more money - if you're short please don't get a complex.  You could be my hero.  Weirdly most of my heroes like Annie Oakely and Audie Murphy weren't that tall.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Teenage Girls Now and Four Hundred Years Ago

The phase 'some things never change' is utter cobblers.

The world is always changing.  The continents are shifting, the planet wobbles on its axis, new animals appear old ones become extinct and as for people, boy, they change from generation to generation.  Next time you're travelling in the Seventeenth Century ask your average citizen if they know what 'twerking' is.  That said, next time you're travelling in the 1990's ask your average citizen what 'twerking' is.

As I say too much, I'm supposed to be writing SF, but get sucked back in time to write about eras gone by.  I don't try to be super historically accurate, I'm after finding the good story, not remembering whether to write 'thou' or 'thy'.  I would advise to do some research and I find it fun, then I think about how attitudes and behaviour will change.  Awhile back I scribbled down a couple of pictures comparing a modern girl, of say about fifteen, to one from four hundred years ago.  It's not detailed or precise, just some things for me to keep in mind while I was writing stories from around that era.

I found them recently and thought they were worth sharing.  I couldn't ask any seventeenth century teenagers about it (flux capacitor problems again), but a couple of modern ones thought I was about right.  Take a look and see what you think.

I think the key one, is that there was no 'safety net' in the seventeenth century.  Where I live there is free medical care and social payments for those in need.  It changes the way people think for sure.  Some sort of 'safety net' is common in most Western countries and as for jobs, as bad are our recessions get, the past has always been worse.  Few Westerners starve to death and as for getting into trouble abroad, if you ended up in enslaved or in a distant jail, and you were an ordinary Joe, tough luck.

In my notes and in my stories I tend to avoid religion.  My seventeenth century girl would have a strong faith, which one would be dependent on where she lived.  How tolerant of other faiths she would be is also very dependent on where she lived too.  Her reaction to other racial groups would be optimistically described as 'conservative'.  Port towns and cities, by their nature attract 'different' people and familiarisation would lead to tolerance.   Hopefully my twenty-first century girl would never judge anyone on religion, race or physical appearance, then again, she is human and some things never change.

Seventeenth Century Girl - My Notes

Twenty-first Century Girl - My Notes

Useful Books

Not quite the era, but they give a strong idea about attitudes.

The Tudor Housewife by Alison Sim.
Masters and Servants in Tudor England by Alison Sim.
Food and Feast in Tudor England by Alison Sim.

Useful Links

The Ladies of the 17th century were way more hardcore than you - an excellent article on re-enacting the life of a seventeenth century woman.  Shows how tough a girl of the time would be.

Jeff & Caroline's pages of 17th Century Stuff - if you're interested in 17th century costume.

madameisistoilette.blogspot.co.uk - an interesting guide to 17th century beauty more from the rich end of the scale, but who do the ordinary folk copy, even today.

Hair Styles through History - er...hair styles through history, very nice summary.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Where do your ideas come from? The Woman who Must

This is another entry in my sporadic series: 'Where do your ideas come from?' .  The previous one was about my SF story A Bit of A Mutiny first published in Jupiter SF.  This one is about a fantasy story The Woman who Must that first appeared in the Planetmag webzine.  I have republished it through Feedbooks so if anyone wants to download it they can for free.

Sometimes an image pops into my head and then it's a matter of asking the right questions, usually 'why'.  No, not why images pop into my head?  Why is what's happening, happening?

The image was of a Queen consort walking in an arboretum containing trees of her homeland, instantly I knew she was doing this everyday.  I knew she couldn't return to her own land.  Up pop the questions:

Why is she doing this?
Why are trees so important to her?  It can't be  as simple as she's missing her Motherland, can it?
Is she is an exile by marriage or is there something more?

Off and on I've been writing stories based around a fictional European country in the sixteenth/seventeenth century, playing with the idea of a historical fantasy.  This image came from that world and because of it, I knew she was being watched by her only child.  I wanted to write something earlier because her child, a girl called Aileen - and sometimes other things - tends to steal the show if she's about.

In this land I've toyed with dragons, mermaids and a little magic, then I try to make it more realistic and expunge the extreme fantastical elements sticking with 'subtle magic' that leans more to science.

She is walking in the woods for a very important reason and its before her only child is born, why is she doing that?

The first thing that came was a title, not the story title, but hers, that admittedly became the title of the story.  In her country she is 'The Woman who must Walk in the Forest Alone.'  If you look through human history titles like 'King', 'Queen', 'Emperor' are often shorthand for longer, older titles; for example: in the UK, 'Prime Minister'  is a modern title, in fact it used to be an insult - honest.  The Prime Minister's real title is First Lord of the Treasury.  In fact it is still engraved on the letterbox of 10 Downing Street.

The Woman who must Walk in the Woods Alone had to relate to a ritual.  Immediately I saw it,  Kings, even modern governments, go on about protecting their people, what if the King of this land had to demonstrate the land was safe by making his wife walk alone in a wild wood.  Now (most) kings aren't stupid, so say the ritual is a cheat.  A very safe piece of forest would be picked, surrounded by soldiers and cleared out of any people.  Now that would make a dull tale:  a rich woman going for a stroll, so what if a light, trivial ritual has returned to what it once was: a test of courage, of faith in her people and doing it meant something huge.

Her land has been invaded and the previous king had been ruthlessly eliminated as has all his family and anyone with a claim on the throne.  All that killing has made a minor lady sent to make a good match at a foreign court the uncrowned queen; that's the trouble with killing your enemies the consequences are unpredictable.

It's back to why walk in the woods?  Why leave the safety of your husband's land to enter a place of danger?  If she is discovered the new rulers wouldn't hesitate to add her to the list of their royal victims.

What could be so important, so vital that she would risk death?

Lady Roberta of Agritainia made the best of matches.  She married a prince and he became a king. There is one thing a queen consort has to do and she cannot.

I said, I like subtle magic.  The ideas came in a rush.  What if the fertility of Agritainian women is linked to the forests?  I had this thought of her land in ancient times being ravished by raiders stealing away the women and this binding the women to the forests was some kind of defence.  If raiders take its women, they'll have no 'worth'.  A warrior might force one to be their wife, but his brutish line will end with him.  Of course Agritainian women can travel and marry freely, but if they want to have children they must return if only once to Walk through the Woods Alone.  It made the ritual even older than mere kings and nobles think it is.

She loves her husband and has tried everything, including the arboretum in my image, now there is only one thing left for her to do.  To gamble her life to give her husband the heir he needs.

Now that's all background and not much of a story.  The real story is which part of the land she chooses to walk in and who she meets.  I have loaded the Queen with all kinds of burdens and dangers, what about the peasants living the woods?  They all know what it means, they know all the signs.  When the Lady Walks in the Woods, she is carrying or will carry the heir to the throne.  It will be the real King or Queen, proven by trial.

The ordinary folk, who have to cope with war when it burns their fields and takes their sons, know the significance of the Woman who Must.  Giving her up to the new masters of the land will reap gold and, more importantly peace, to a country and its people still scared by the take over years before.

When I started thinking about the people left behind the story flipped.  It wasn't about the Queen, it was about the who she meets.  That was strangely easy it would be a woman who has seen and been broken by past violence and must now balance up the fate of her nation against the life of one woman.

I know the last paragraph was more of a 'sell' than an explanation, but that's how I feel a story should be.  I wrote this story, repeatedly, it still runs round my head and writing the last paragraph makes me want to read it again.  That's how you can tell and the idea works.

By the way, if you read one of my other tales and want to know where the ideas came from ask away.

Useful Links

Planetmag - One of the oldest SF webzines around.

The Woman who Must - on Planetmag 

Feedbooks - eBooks both free and non-free

The Woman who Must - on Feedbooks

Sunday, 8 February 2015

What was the First Tool Humans Invented? - My thoughs

What was the first thing our ancestors invented?  The club, the wheel, fire?  I think something else.

I found myself in a meeting a week back with people from all over the world.  For a brief moment I marvelled at how people from almost every continent could converse.  Mainly English was spoken, but I heard at least four other languages and not just from native speakers.  It was then I had my idea for this blog.

Disclaimer: I am far from being an expert in this field, it was just some random thoughts that sort of make sense.  Have a read and see what you think, comments are welcome, but be friendly :o)

Archaeologists find stone tools:  clubs, axes, knives, scrapers, that's where the chain of inventions started that led to spacecraft and space-based kit I help to design.  Those must be the first inventions - No.

It has to be language.  Our distant forefathers and foremothers had to work out how to communicate.  It leaves no direct evidence, but we all know it had to be there or we wouldn't be here.  I was in a room where one group of people were explaining a very complex concept to another group of people from the other side of the world.  We did it!  In fact that was the easy bit, solving the technical challenges, not how to get them across will be the task for this project to proceed.  Language must be the first invention - No.

I think the invention of language is a close second, actually it's probably a distant third because there are animals with limited language and others with none that use tools, like crows for example.

I think the first human invention was...drum roll...the NAME.  We invented names.  We labelled the world and ourselves and our place in it.  From the moment we understood we were more than objects, we gave ourselves names.  Humanity is a poetry of labels, also a cage of labels too, so be careful with them.  We all understand the pain of being labelled, even if it is unintentionally harmless, writes a man who once received a letter to Mr R Goldfish.

More specifically humanity's first invention was the name for humanity, we invented ourselves.

We called ourselves 'Man'.  Not like nowadays where it is seen as a male orientated word.  Man meant all of us.  Man meant mind.  That was the first invention, us and a label for us.

Any crow or parrot can do stone tools and sharpened sticks, but few creatures can say: hey, this is us.  We are us.

I was in a room full of minds the other week and the most wonderful thing about it was that we all put our minds together to solve something no single mind could do.  Now that's inventing.

Useful Links