Thanks all around

johnny-automatic-maid-with-cornucopia-800pxYes, it’s that time once again in the U.S.A., Thanksgiving and sharing your gratitude. It was not difficult to find things to be thankful for, but it was difficult to write about them; 2016 was a very sucky year from the global level to the personal level. Nonetheless, I have things I’m very grateful for.

Thanks, Obama — actually, that’s Thanks, Mr. President, and I’m thankful for that. You have been a smart, compassionate, dignified, eloquent, funny president for eight years and I will miss you so much.

And thanks, Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker. You encouraged us to be our better selves during this depressing, mind-boggling year of election campaigning.

Thanks, people of good will and honest mind who have fought, and plan to keep fighting, the return of fascism around the world.

Thanks to my husband Edmund who had a year of waiting on me hand and foot. I know this was rough and I assure you that I never forgot, in the midst of my own problems, what you were going through.

Thanks to my family — my mother, siblings, extended family who also had their own sorrows this year. I know you were worried about me, and hated that I was so far from you in a country known for its terrifying health care system. I hope I kept you informed enough to reassure you.

Thanks, my friends close and far, including many wonderful people I have never met face-to-face! Thank you for the encouragements, the help navigating bureaucracies, the cute animal pictures, the interesting discussions, the sage advice, the thoughtful gifts, and the simple fact that you cared.

Thanks, Valentine, Ubaid and Phantom, my three felinotherapists. You take good care of me.

Thanks

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Homework: The Missing Chequebook

GreekRestaurant

For the second week’s homework of the six-week online class I’m taking, “Writing the Other,” we were given ten minutes of role-playing to do through instant messaging or chat:

You’ll need a partner to do this exercise, which calls for a bit of role-playing. First, both you and your partner should mentally pick two numbers between one and twelve. [Note: Naturally, I rolled 2d12!] Write these down, or remember them, but don’t reveal them to each other. The two of you will be having a written conversation, writing from the viewpoints of two complete strangers.

The context for the dialogue is this: One of you (decide which one before starting the exercise) has found the other’s checkbook and would like to return it. As for what the character you assume will be like, that’s up to you—except for two important traits. On the next two pages are four lists, labeled “A, B, C, and D.” Using the numbers you’ve picked, read what it says next to the first number on list A and the second on list B. Your partner will do the same thing, using lists C and D. Again, do not reveal to your partner the numbers you’ve picked or the traits assigned to those numbers. Simply assume those traits as your own, and begin writing.

The lists each contained twelve traits; lists A and C contained primarily traits relating to race, orientation, ability, age, religion or sex (“ROAARS traits” for short), while lists B and D contains primarily non-ROAARS traits. Here is what my assigned partner and I came up with:

Dialogue

Sandra: “Um…excuse?  Please excuse… I found your folder. No… wallet!”

Sophie:  “Hold on… Yes, I did lose it!”

Sandra: “No, no.  Um…your money papers.  Your cheques.  Yes?”

Sophie:  “Yes!”

Sandra: “So, I will like to give it to you after my classes, yes?”

Sophie:  “When is that? Is there any way we could meet sooner?”

Sandra: “My classes?  No, they are in the afternoon.  I work mornings.”

Sophie:  “Where do you work? Maybe I could go pick it up.”

Sandra: “At the restaurant.  You like to eat?”

Sophie:  “Who doesn’t?” [chuckle]  ☺

Sandra: “Pick up?  Excuse?”

Sophie:  “I could go meet you at the restaurant where you work and get the cheque book back.”

Sandra: “Yes!  The cheques!  At the restaurant?  Sure, yes, we could.”

Sophie:  “Where is the restaurant, and when should I show up?”

Sandra: “At the corner of Martin and Sprague.  With the blue birds.  Under the blue birds.  You will see them. The cheques you get before I leave for classes.”

Sophie:  “Lovely!”  [I look it up on Google Maps. What kind of restaurant do I see?]

Sandra: (Greek)

Sophie:  “OK, I can be there at 11am, is this good for you?”

Sandra: “…11 before lunch?  Yes, that is good. Before the rush. Lots of people come in for lunch.”

Sophie:  “Exactly!  Maybe I can have lunch there.” [I plan to tip you hugely .]

Sandra: “Lunch is good.  I will have something waiting for you.”

Analysis

I played someone who was Buddhist and a technical rock-climber, while Sandra, it turns out, played a non-native-English speaker (she picked Russian) and part-time student.  Sandra’s traits were pretty easy to recognize, especially the non-native speech patterns, of course. On the other hand, Buddhist might have affected the choice of meal later on at the restaurant, but not so much this conversation unless maybe karma or the type of restaurant were invoked. I didn’t see technical rock-climber as likely to show up, but I could have forced it; I had in mind that maybe I was in a hurry because I had a trip planned.

Mostly, Sandra and I agreed afterwards that we were just trying to act like people usually do under the circumstances. I figured I would want to get my chequebook as soon as possible. We did interject a few side observations from an omniscient narrator perspective.

Conclusion: A trait, even a ROAARS trait, isn’t everything about a character; sometimes it doesn’t show up at all. (Unlike much Hollywood writing would have us believe!)
checkbook

Cheques? Really?

The exercise made our Finnish classmate Nina chuckle. She says Europeans are perplexed that Americans are still using cheques (it’s also obsolete back home in Quebec too, by the way.) Nina said, “It’s like being offered three cows in payment!”

Next week’s homework: We re-write scenes from a work-in-progress to change some of our characters’ ROAARS traits; and we analyse the class markers for a book, show or movie of our choice.


Credits: Photo (“Restaurant – Naxos”) Dorli Photography, used under Creative Commons license Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).  Clipart from dfunk on OpenClipart, released into the public domain.

 

Homework: Hothouse Descriptions

On the first week of the six-week online class I’m taking, “Writing the Other,” the homework consisted of the following instructions:

Below are 7 pictures. Do this exercise once with each of them:

Set a timer for 5 minutes for each picture. Take no more than 20 seconds (time yourself!) to take in the picture and the person in it, then start writing a description of that person. You can describe their physical features, you can make up a personality for them, ascribe emotions to them, whatever comes to you. Go with your first instincts and keep your fingers moving until the timer goes off. Like the other exercises, this is not about producing publishable material; it’s about writing, not thinking.

The exercise is called “hothouse descriptions” because it’s like hothouse “forcing,” coaxing blooms out of season. The pictures were all obtained from the fantastic “Humans of New York” project. (I invite you to browse the HoNY site, it’s so much fun.)

Later on, every participant in the class was invited to look at others’ descriptions and highlight words that attracted their attention for whatever reason. Here are my seven descriptions, and notes on the words that other students highlighted. (I cropped the images to fit here.) I’ll add my reflections on the exercise at the bottom of the page.

He was a man with wide features — thick eyebrows, wide eyes, wide nose, wide mouth — emphasized by his horizontal wrinkles on his forehead and ears that stuck out to the sides. His was a pleasantly homely, somewhat dreamy face. He wore a black winter jacket with a plushy collar, and a black-and-white pied-de-poule scarf. He look to the side, perhaps embarrassed by the attention he was receiving. I wondered if his voice would be craggy or soft, deferent or sonorous.
#1 – He was a man with wide features — thick eyebrows, wide eyes, wide nose, wide mouth — emphasized by his horizontal wrinkles on his forehead and ears that stuck out to the sides. His was a pleasantly homely, somewhat dreamy face. He wore a black winter jacket with a plushy collar, and a black-and-white pied-de-poule scarf. He look to the side, perhaps embarrassed by the attention he was receiving. I wondered if his voice would be craggy or soft, deferent or sonorous.

Words highlighted: wide (x2), wrinkles (x2), homely (x3), dreamy (x2), plushy, pied-de-poule (x2), craggy, sonorous.

Comments: I used “pied-de-poule”, the French term for this pattern, because of the time constraint when I could not remember what it’s called in English (hound’s tooth.)

 

She smiled broadly, the sparkle of her eyes barely dimmed by the hipster glasses. A bright blue scarf framed her face, a blue that spoke of sky, sea, flowers, birds, and comfort, and stood out against her black sweater. A bracelet shone around her left wrist with large beads, stones or charms, I could not tell. She seemed like a person I would enjoy sharing a cup of coffee with, and commenting on the unseasonable weather with. Would she think it rude or charming to be asked to coffee by some strange woman?
#2 – She smiled broadly, the sparkle of her eyes barely dimmed by the hipster glasses. A bright blue scarf framed her face, a blue that spoke of sky, sea, flowers, birds, and comfort, and stood out against her black sweater. A bracelet shone around her left wrist with large beads, stones or charms, I could not tell. She seemed like a person I would enjoy sharing a cup of coffee with, and commenting on the unseasonable weather with. Would she think it rude or charming to be asked to coffee by some strange woman?

Words highlighted: broadly (x2), sparkle (x2), hipster, blue, comfort (x3), sharing, rude.

His sharp profile made me think of some famous actor going incognito, perhaps Roy Schneider or Sir Ian McKellan: elegantly disheveled gray hair, dark sunglasses, the sweep of a fedora that sat well on his head, the staunch rise of a Burberry collar, a hint of cashmere scarf. I imagined him a once-famous theatre star, perhaps, now forgotten by many but remembered by fans of discerning taste. Would he flee recognition, or be secretly pleased that someone had seen behind the disguise?
#3 – His sharp profile made me think of some famous actor going incognito, perhaps Roy Schneider or Sir Ian McKellan: elegantly dishevelled grey hair, dark sunglasses, the sweep of a fedora that sat well on his head, the staunch rise of a Burberry collar, a hint of cashmere scarf. I imagined him a once-famous theatre star, perhaps, now forgotten by many but remembered by fans of discerning taste. Would he flee recognition, or be secretly pleased that someone had seen behind the disguise?

Words highlighted: sharp, incognito (x3), elegantly, dishevelled (x3), hint, once-famous (x2), star, discerning (x2), flee, disguise.

She looked lovely, and I wondered if she knew it. Not perfect: a few skin blemishes, a nose slightly too large, made her entirely human. But her hair smoothly brushed back from a well-shaped forehead looked soft and had a lovely depth of walnut hues; her eyes were clear and bright; her eyebrows, though carefully groomed, followed a graceful natural sweep. She looked like someone who took care to look her best, perhaps like all of us worrying over imperfections, but with enough confidence and character to accept them rather than try to look like someone else.
#4 – She looked lovely, and I wondered if she knew it. Not perfect: a few skin blemishes, a nose slightly too large, made her entirely human. But her hair smoothly brushed back from a well-shaped forehead looked soft and had a lovely depth of walnut hues; her eyes were clear and bright; her eyebrows, though carefully groomed, followed a graceful natural sweep. She looked like someone who took care to look her best, perhaps like all of us worrying over imperfections, but with enough confidence and character to accept them rather than try to look like someone else.

Words highlighted: lovely, smoothly brushed, well-shaped, walnut, clear, bright, graceful, character (x3), accept.

I thought he looked like a man well-travelled. He had a strong face, and the lines in it, along with the gray streak parting his curly black hair, suggested he might be in his fifties. Lines around his eyes, and thick eyebrows slightly frowning for the moment, suggested both laughter and inquisitiveness, both wariness and insight. His jacket said “business-man”, his colourful checkered shirt open at the throat answered “on vacation,” and the matching handkerchief emerging from his left breast pocket spoke of a sense of fashion.
#5 – I thought he looked like a man well-travelled. He had a strong face, and the lines in it, along with the grey streak parting his curly black hair, suggested he might be in his fifties. Lines around his eyes, and thick eyebrows slightly frowning for the moment, suggested both laughter and inquisitiveness, both wariness and insight. His jacket said “business-man”, his colourful checkered shirt open at the throat answered “on vacation,” and the matching handkerchief emerging from his left breast pocket spoke of a sense of fashion.

Words highlighted: well-travelled (x3), grey streak, inquisitiveness (x2), wariness, emerging (x2).

She had coaxed her motorized scooter-style wheelchair up the slab of stone and beamed back at the camera. Her short spiky white hair made her look like an elderly pixie, celebrating a prank. I was sure purple must be one of her favourite colours, because it splashed in motifs against the blue background of her patterned skirt, it wrapped her legs in the form of thick stockings, and it shone from the large utility purse hanging from the scooter’s handles. She was bundled up in a jacket against the nippy weather, and I could almost hear her breath coming in as sharp gasps of cold air.
#6 – She had coaxed her motorized scooter-style wheelchair up the slab of stone and beamed back at the camera. Her short spiky white hair made her look like an elderly pixie, celebrating a prank. I was sure purple must be one of her favourite colours, because it splashed in motifs against the blue background of her patterned skirt, it wrapped her legs in the form of thick stockings, and it shone from the large utility purse hanging from the scooter’s handles. She was bundled up in a jacket against the nippy weather, and I could almost hear her breath coming in as sharp gasps of cold air.

Words highlighted: scooter-style, beamed, pixie (x3), prank, splashed (x2), bundled, nippy, gasps (x3).

She was carrying the mail to the post office in a box she cradled with her left arm. She had dressed warmly for the season this morning, with a dark woolen coat and knitted hat, but by now the day had warmed so that she let her coat swing open over a blouse patterned with large tropical flowers in yellows, browns and greens. Her hair was dark and wavy, her roundish horn-rimmed glasses reminded me of the 1980s and I wished I could carry the look like that. She sang softly along with the music player tucked into her right coat pocket, the earphones buried under cap and hair, betrayed only by a white cord.
#7 – She was carrying the mail to the post office in a box she cradled with her left arm. She had dressed warmly for the season this morning, with a dark woollen coat and knitted hat, but by now the day had warmed so that she let her coat swing open over a blouse patterned with large tropical flowers in yellows, browns and greens. Her hair was dark and wavy, her roundish horn-rimmed glasses reminded me of the 1980s and I wished I could carry the look like that. She sang softly along with the music player tucked into her right coat pocket, the earphones buried under cap and hair, betrayed only by a white cord.

Words highlighted: cradled, swing, open, tropical (x2), horn-rimmed, sang (x2), betrayed (x2),

So, final thoughts. After the first two or three, I noticed I was not saying much about possible racial or ethnic markers. I asked myself whether I was avoiding the topic, but I did not feel constrained (except by time) while I was writing, so I decided to just keep doing what came naturally. I was content to suggest rather than state, and I also noticed that my focus was much more on the way people constructed their own look consciously (for example, with sartorial and grooming choices) or unconsciously (for example, with wrinkles from habitual expressions.)

In truth, I often don’t feel confident assigning racial (whatever that means) or ethnic identities; I had no idea for #1, #2 and #7, for example. Sure, I assumed that #2 was Muslim, but that told me nothing about ethnic or racial origin.  On the other hand, #3, #4 and #6 looked like they might be of European descent; in the case of #4, I would have guessed Eastern Europe and recent immigration. And #5, as I said in my description, looked to me like he could have been around the globe before.

Learning to Write the Other

And to become what the other look on . .It’s been a while since I wrote about a class I’m taking. I just started a six-week-long online class, “Writing the Other,” led by writers Nisi Shawl and K. Tempest Bradford. It’s tough for me to fit a class with my work schedule, my interminable commute, my writing, daily life, and just plain recovering from all this. But six weeks doesn’t seem too long, I think I can do this.

The class text is Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, an inexpensive purchase as an ebook and one that can also be used for self-directed learning. We also use the essay collections curated by Jim C. Hines, Invisible and Invisible 2.

The instructors have gathered a collection of interesting links, but I’ll leave it to them to share their class material as they see fit. However, I had done my own gathering ahead of the class (including articles by the instructors), so I’d like to share those articles with anyone interested.

In addition, I would like to share a few tools I find useful in completing the assignments, for the benefit of classmates and others:


Image Credits: “And to become what the other look on . .” by Jef Safi, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Helping

The Death of the Hen: Chapterhead illustration

The Death of the Hen: Initial capitalnce upon a time last year, I took an online literature class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World (it re-runs periodically and you might enjoy it too.) The first week’s reading assignment  was Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s Household Stories, and I ended up reading some Grimm stories I was less familiar—or even completely unfamiliar—with. As I mentioned last year, one particularly stuck with me, a short fable called The Death of the Hen.  Like a lot of fables it presents the amusing adventures of talking animals to present a moral lesson; but the lesson was not one I expected.

In short, it tells us that to be useful, help must be both timely and appropriate.  Help of the right kind withheld until the moment has passed is of no use; help given generously and promptly but of the wrong kind makes things worse.

  • In the tale, the brook and the bride’s withholding of help delay their assistance until it is too late to save the hen; the result is the right kind of help, but too late.  But the hen was already choking and so is no worse off – she would have died without the help, she dies with it as well.
  • The straw and coal’s help was well-intentioned and timely, but was of the wrong kind so it caused others to die who did not have to.
  • The stone’s help was timely and of the right kind, but all the other “helpers” – wolf, bear, stag, lion, and all the beasts in the wood – overwhelm the help which the stone can provide, and so all are lost.

This has popped back to mind several times since I read it thanks to real-life examples, most recently this weekend when a friend needed help from many of us. I felt angered that the fable was being re-told in real time (though I think our hen is actually doing fine since we had more stones than brooks, lions, and straws.)

The Death of the Hen: Chapter end illustration

Ethics and Morality: Two Classes Compared

When I can squeeze the time, I still take some free online classes from the buffet of offerings currently available from sources like Coursera, Open2Study, iVersity, and MIT OpenCourseWare. Sometimes I merely audit the classes, sometimes I actually submit the homework and take the exams so I can get a certificate.

I recently undertook two that make an easy comparison, on a topic that is of no interest for career advancement but of great personal interest to me: Paul Bloom’s “Moralities of Everyday Life,” and Peter Singer’s “Practical Ethics,” both offered through Coursera. The first finished just before the second started, and that second is currently in progress.

Moralities_of_Everyday_LifeMoralities of Everyday Life

Yale University. Instructor: Paul Bloom; assistant instructor: Christina Starmans; guest lecturer: Laurie Santos. Course info.

This introductory class extended over six weeks and required listening to lectures, completing reading assignments, and taking weekly quizzes. In addition, students were encouraged to discuss relevant topics each week in the online forum. Weekly topics were divided thus:

  1. The Big Questions: What is morality, anyway? What are the big debates in the field of moral psychology?
  2. Compassion: Where does concern for others come from? How is it related to empathy—and is more empathy necessarily a good thing? And what can we learn from the study of those who seemingly lack normal moral feelings, such as violent psychopaths?
  3. Origins of morality: Here, we ask about which aspects of morality are universal. We discuss evolution, cross-cultural research, and the fascinating new science of the moral life of babies.
  4. Differences: How does culture influence our moral thought and moral action? What role does religion play? Why are some of us conservative and others liberal, and how do political differences influence our sense of right and wrong?
  5. Family, friends and strangers: Our moral feelings are usually most powerful towards our kin (such as our parents and our children) and our friends and allies. We will discuss these special bonds, and then turn to the morality of racial and ethnic bias. Then we use the tools of behavioral economics to explore the controversial question of whether we are ever truly altruistic to strangers.
  6. The Big Answers: We’ll discuss some clever studies that show how our moral behavior is powerfully influenced—often at the unconscious level—by the situations that we find ourselves in. Such findings raise some hard problems about determinism, free will, and moral responsibility. Most of all, if our actions are determined by our brains, our genes, and our situations, in what sense can we be said to be moral agents? The course will end by trying to address this question.

I found this class greatly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. The studio-filmed lectures, tailored for this online class, combined succinct overviews of the history of each topic with case studies and experimental results that test the assumptions and hypotheses discussed. At the end of each week, the instructors selected some of the most interesting questions and discussions found on the forum and answered them in a supplemental video called “Office Hours.”

Dr. Paul Bloom is is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. He has published over a hundred scientific articles in journals such as Science and Nature, and his popular writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Natural History, and many other publications. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching, and is the author or editor of six books, including Descartes’ Baby, How Pleasure Works, and Just Babies.

Christina Starmans is a fifth year graduate student in Developmental Psychology at Yale University.  She studies the development of common sense ideas about bodies, minds, and selves, including what sort of a thing a self is, how we think about selves persisting through time, and why we sometimes feel like we have multiple selves.

Dr. Laurie Santos is Associate Professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. Her research explores the evolutionary origins of the human mind by comparing the cognitive abilities of humans and non-human animals, including primates and canines. She is the Director of the Canine Cognition Lab at Yale. She has been a featured TED speaker, and has been listed in Popular Science Magazine as one of their “Brilliant 10” young minds in 2007, and in Time Magazine as a “Leading Campus Celebrity” in 2013.

I had read some articles by Bloom, but not his books.

The course material was well organised and despite the short schedule, provided a solid introduction to the material and even some intriguing supplemental nuggets for those of us who already had read on the topic. While it was not possible to go in-depth into any aspect in such a short course, it whetted my appetite to do more readings, rather than leaving me feeling abandoned after the appetizer course (ha-ha).

The required readings were substantive but approachable and provided useful insight into the topics covered. In addition, suggested further readings provided an excellent starter list for a bibliography of the subject matter. The guest lectures were also excellent, and I absolutely loved guest lecturer Laurie Santos for her no-nonsense attitude and sense of humour.

When this class runs again (you can subscribe to Coursera’s notification system), I strongly recommend catching it if you have an interest in this topic, even though it is introductory. If I see other classes by these instructors, I will likely attend them.

practicalethics-logoPractical Ethics

Princeton University.  Instructor: Peter Singer; guests: Charles Camosy, April Dworetz, Holden Karnofsky, William MacAskill, Matt Wage, Zell Kravisnky, Julia Wise, Alexander Berger, Dale Jamieson, Anthony Appiah, Russel Nieli. Course info.

This class, also at the introductory level, spreads over twelve weeks with a break in the middle, i.e., a full term. It requires listening to lectures, completing reading assignments, submitting four papers, and peer reviewing the papers of four other students for each of the four assignments (total of at least 16 papers peer-reviewed). Like in Dr. Bloom’s class, students are encouraged to discuss relevant topics each week in the online forum. The weekly topics are:

  1. The nature of ethics
  2. Normative ethical theories
  3. Brain death and persistent vegetative state; Abortion (Part 1): Women’s rights
  4. Abortion (Part 2): The moral status of embryos and fetuses; Drawing distinctions in end of life decisions
  5. Making life and death decisions for infants; Voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide
  6. Effective altruism (Part 1): Poverty and affluence; (Part 2): What is the best cause?
  7. Effective altruism (Part 3): Choosing an effective career; (Part 3): Choosing an effective career
  8. Effective altruism (Part 5): Are we violating the rights of the poor?; Climate change (Part 1): How should we allocate greenhouse gas emissions?
  9. Climate change (Part 2): Is geoengineering an ethical option?; Animals (Part 1): How ought we to treat animals?
  10. Animals (Part 2): Experimenting on animals; (Part 3): An ethical Thanksgiving dinner
  11. Environmental values (Part 1): Is anything other than sentient life of intrinsic value?; (Part 2): Intervening in nature
  12. Equality and affirmative action; Why act ethically?

The lectures are filmed live as Dr. Singer gives his freshman class at Princeton the same week. Thus, they do not have the polish of a studio-filmed lecture, there is background noise, Dr. Singer hems and haws and sometimes rambles the way professors do in any live lecture. While his diction and voice are very clear, making him easy to understand, he is not riveting — this is no Richard Feynman. Moreover, the class is clearly aimed at young Princeton students, making some of the questions it tackles less vibrant for the Internet audience.

Dr. Peter Singer is an Australian moral philosopher. He is currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. He specialises in applied ethics and approaches ethical issues from a secular, preference utilitarian perspective. He is known in particular for his book, Animal Liberation (1975), a canonical text in animal rights/liberation theory.

I had read several articles and extensive excerpts from Singer’s books, but I don’t think I’d read any of them in its entirety.

Probably because of the live format and the young audience, I don’t find the lectures nearly as well organised or persuasive as the ones in Moralities of Everyday Life.I also find he does not submit all arguments presented to the same scrutiny, giving short shrift to arguments that he doesn’t like and giving a pass to ones he favours. I come out of the lectures feeling that he assumed he could just tell students the “right answer” as if this was a physics class because it is so basic from his perspective.

I’ll be honest: I have limited patience for pure philosophy. I like learning about the ideas, but we always rapidly get to a point where I want some ground-truthing before I follow the thinker out on a limb. In Moralities of Everyday Life, the philosophical background was presented but then the instructors rapidly delved into practical cases and laboratory experiments that supported or contradicted the philosophy. With Practical Ethics, however, we are in the domain of pure philosophy even though the questions approached are practical, or at least have practical implications.

Where Bloom presented support for pretty much all assertions he made and amply played devil’s advocate against his own position, Singer throws a lot of assertions that he may have demonstrated to his own satisfaction somewhere else, but are just free-floating in the context of this class. As a result, I feel argumentative and cantankerous in Singer’s class, even though I agree with so much of his opinions; while I felt pleasantly mentally stimulated in Bloom’s class even when I disagreed with him.

If you’re going to take Practical Ethics, then Moralities of Everyday Life makes a superlative introduction—but maybe a little bit too good; you may find yourself, like me, wishing Dr. Bloom taught both classes. I admit it’s unfair of me to not wait until Singer’s class is complete to compare the two, but I will update this post later if the rest of the class changes my impression 25% of the way in.

Open Source Rocks

Open Source Initiative logoToday I want to sing the praises of open source shareware! It’s not just make-do, cheapie versions of “real” (read: expensive and branded to the gills) software—on the contrary. A lot of software that is open source and available on pay-what-you-want or free basis is better than just about anything you can get unless you go for expensive professional editions. I want to spread the word about a few of my favourites, particularly since I have recently received a number of questions on how I create some of the resources I’ve shared here.

LibreOffice logoI just wrote a book; LibreOffice handled a 150-pages, 60k words document without any hassles. LibreOffice is a free and effective alternative to the Microsoft Office Suite, and it although it is originally forked off Open Office, it immediately beat the pants off its predecessor then kept on getting better. As a bonus, it’s also the non-Microsoft suite that has provided me with the best compatibility with MS Office, which is important when you collaborate with others (in particular, better than Open Office and Google Drive.)

Calibre logoCalibre allows me to organize, read, extract, convert, and create e-books so I can read my reference material in the handiest way and share my results. All those free e-books I’ve produced in recent years, like convention programs and role-playing game material were made thanks to Calibre. Even better, creator Kovid Goyal frequently releases updates with new, wonderful features, and the community of fans also provides useful plug-ins. If you use e-books on any device, you should have Calibre to manage your library because there is simply no commercial product that compares.

[Edit: It rocks even harder when you start using it as a server and connect your devices via wireless.]

GIMP logoGIMP, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, is a handy alternative to Adobe PhotoShop or Corel PainShop Pro and has also vastly improved over the years  from its rickety early years. An active community also creates lots of useful plug-ins to extend the core program’s capabilities for image editing, free-form drawing and digital painting, photo-montages, converting between different image formats, map-making, etc.. The only thing I dislike about it is its name, because every time it’s mentioned in conversation in front of a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair, I can see her twitch as if she’d just been slapped. I wish someone had chosen a different name, but it’s been around for 18 years now so it’s difficult to get enough momentum for change.

Scribus logoScribus is a desktop publishing program that lets you create well laid-out, visually attractive documents. If you can’t afford a professional product like QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign, Scribus is a much more powerful tool than consumer- or home-level desktop publishers like MS Publisher. It does have a learning curve, precisely because it can do so much more, and the support community is enthusiastic but small. I’ve used it to lay out magazine-style convention programs, character sheets, PDF e-books, and much more. Heck, I even use it to fill forms, now that I’m familiar with it workings.

MyPaint logoMyPaint is a wonderfully light art application that works best with a tablet and stylus, and lets you draw or paint “realistically.” I love the way you can make the interface disappear and work as if you screen was a canvas, “dipping” your brushes in the colours to paint; it feels very natural. In addition, you canvas is infinite and you can resize as you go. I’ve described how handy it is for me to be able to do digital art; I’ve used MyPaint for all sorts of art, from ink drawing-style to more painterly.

lyx[Edit: LyX is a document processor based on LaTeX. It comes with a well-designed graphical interface and had a ton of powerful features that allow the user to handle large, complex documents like academic articles, theses, and books. I would not use it to design a game book, but it’s great for a book manuscript, for example. Lots of useful support and documentation available too.]

Finally, these are not creative tools per se but I’m a fan of the Firefox Web browser and the Linux operating system, especially in its Ubuntu build.

Pop Culture Wicked Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes coverI’m a little late for the “pop culture” links for this month’s reading in my SF/F book club, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.  (I’m even later with my essay for last month’s book, never mind that!)  Back in April we read another Bradbury book, The Martian Chronicles, for our SF/F class and I posted some links as well as my essay.

First, a reminder that you can read a large number of Bradbury’s stories online thanks to Unz.org.  But let’s concentrate on this specific book: Something Wicked This Way Comes was published in 1962, so although it’s over 50 years old, it’s still well within copyright protection, which means no legal free copies online.  Many editions are available for purchase, including as a full-cast audiobook and in graphic novel format.

The novel was made into the 1983 Disney film Something Wicked This Way Comes, with Bradbury as the screenwriter. In a later interview, Bradbury said that he considered the film one of the better adaptations of his works.

Bradbury’s Pandemonium Theatre Company also debuted a play based on the novel in Los Angeles on October 1, 2003, directed by Alan Neal Hubbs, also associated with the 1970 stage adaptation of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. The play received generally favourable reviews, stating that it captured the lyricism and dark tone of the novel, and praising its special effects.

The novel was also produced as a full-cast radio play by the Colonial Radio Theatre on the Air, and released by Blackstone Audio on October 1, 2007; Bradbury wrote the script, modified for audio from his stage play.  It was was produced as a radio play for the BBC Radio 4 Saturday Play series as a different adaptation, and was broadcast on 29 October 2011 and 7 December 2012.

Many popular culture references and influences can be found in television shows, novels, comics, and games, from The Simpsons to South Park.  Wikipedia cites no less than six songs or albums named for the book.  More generally, just about any creepy travelling carnival, like the one in later seasons of Heroes, or the focus of the excellent HBO mini-series Carnivàle, contains a nod to Bradbury’s novel.  Heck, wouldn’t you say that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which we read a few months ago, also contained a bit of an homage with its bizarre, carnivalesque entertainments at the House on the Rock?

nicewheel

Ferris wheel at night © David Karp 2007.  No copyright challenge intended, it’s just a gorgeous photo that I wanted you to see.

Mail Art: Proof of Concept

Proof-of-concept-01As mentioned in my last entry, this week’s assignment in my online art class is a piece of mail art with the topic “Correspondence With Memory.”

It so happens that every summer, my mom goes to an event called “Les Correspondances d’Eastman” — a literary festival celebrating novels, poetry, graphic novels, storytelling, letter-writing, and song lyrics.  Every time, she sends my letters she wrote there at a workshop.  So I thought she’d enjoy getting a hand-made letter back; thinking of her put me in mind of another of her favourite activities, bird-watching, so I had my theme.  I want to make a letter that looks like a bird house.

Tonight I created my “proof of concept” mock-up for the envelope; I don’t have the full insert yet.  Naturally, I now need to make this with quality paper and create the images on it.

Mail Art

780x587xpisarro1904.jpg.pagespeed.ic.CJNj_4-R2sThe topic for Week 3 of my online class “Introduction to Art: Concepts & Techniques” is “Correspondence With Memory” and focuses on mail art.  We covered three key artists who do mail art: Ray Johnson and his moticos, Ryosuke Cohen and his Braincell series (neither of which did much for me), and Eleanor Antin and her 100 Boots series (which I really liked.)

Some classmates have posted links to good resources on mail art, including:

I have limited experience with mail art.  My two inspirations are J.R.R. Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters and Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine correspondence.

tolkien-address1For years, Tolkien entertained his children around the holidays with letters from Father Christmas (known as Santa Claus in North America) filled with tales and sketches of the year’s events at the North Pole.  This book inspired me as a kid and teen to illustrate my own letters.  I don’t ever remember believing in Père Noël/Santa Claus/Father Christmas, but I remember figuring on early that the adults around me liked it when kids sent letters to the North Pole, not only for the cuteness factor but to have a useful list in hand.  So I illustrated mine with water colour images in Tolkien’s style, often writing on behalf of my younger siblings as well (at their request.)

To me, this was a piece of art for my parents and a joke between us.  Little did I know that they were actually sending copies through the post office, since Canada handles the mail for the North Pole!  The year my letter ended up published in a local newspaper, I was in high school and rather mortified that everyone seemed to think I actually believed in Santa!

Mai-Art-MA03Two decades ago, I stumbled on Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence and absolutely loved it.  Bantock’s lush images and collages, which continued to appear in subsequent books, were a delight to discover.  I had to examine each in minute detail to discover little connections and motifs shedding light on the story and the entire image.