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Hey, there’s some stressful and depressing shit going down lately. Let’s talk about something pleasant and stress-reducing!

Well, okay, so being super picky about making tea may be stress-INducing for some. If so, no worries. I have one, firm position on how to make the best cup of tea: the best cup of tea is one you enjoyed making (or making it didn’t annoy you too much) and tastes good to you. I will not budge from that position.

That said. There are some ways in which attempts to make that cup of tea are susceptible to various predictable failures. And so I figured I would share the things that work for me to prevent those failures. And also maybe provide opportunities for folks who might actively enjoy the fiddly tea making process if they tried it to have a bit more fun with it and nerd out even more than they already might. (Those of you who are already nerding out probably already do or have most of these things.)

So! The first, most common pitfall in making tea: You heat the water, throw the bag (or the infuser full of leaves) into the cup, pour the water, set it on the desk beside you and…promptly forget about it as you dive into your work. Hours later you remember that tea, now cold– and bitter enough to strip paint.

Friends, there is a simple solution to this, provided you remember to implement it: a timer. This could be a voice assistant on your computer or your phone, an app made purposely for timing the steeping of tea, or a dollar store kitchen timer shaped like a strawberry. Really, it doesn’t matter, but this is a tea-hack that can cost very little and vastly improve your tea-drinking experiences.

For the style of brewing that’s the default in the US (the sort most of you reading this likely think of as just “making tea”), you’ll probably like black tea best at 3-5 minutes, green tea 1-3 minutes (if you’ve got a really nice sencha you might even want to go 30-45 seconds), oolong 3-5 minutes, and white tea 2-5 minutes depending on the actual tea. Those are just guidelines, adjust as needed for your taste. If you want to be super nerdy you can note down what times work best for you for each tea. I don’t do that. I just do black & oolong at 3 minutes, most Chinese greens at 2-3, and sencha at 1 minute. When I’m making them in a cup with an infuser, anyway. If I’m doing the “lots of leaves, many short steeps” method (in a gaiwan, say) I won’t go much longer than a minute, but that’s something to play with if you find you enjoy that kind of thing, and that’s not a brewing method that’s suitable for the “get some caffeine in me so I can get to work this morning” thing.

If you’ve moved to loose leaf brewing, you’ve probably found that measuring out teaspoons of leaves doesn’t quite work. It might work for stuff with very small leaves, or that’s been cut into very small pieces, but it’s useless for large-leaved teas–different teas take up space very differently and some just won’t go into a spoon, no not even that cute little “perfect cup of tea” spoon so many places sell. This makes it difficult to get the amount of leaves just right, let alone consistent from cup to cup (or pot to pot).

So. Doing loos leaf? Want maybe another level of nerdery/tea improvement? Consider a scale. You can get a nice little pocket scale for about ten bucks. The one at that link is the one I have. I set my infuser on it–I use these bad boys–turn it on, and then add however much tea I’m going to use. Rule of thumb for most teas (Western default style brewing) is about 3g per 8oz of water. That’s only a rule of thumb–some need more and some might be fine with less.

You might want to find out how many fluid oz your favorite mugs hold, by the way, so that when you stagger into the kitchen you’ve already done the math and know that you need 5g of tea or whatever.

Once you’ve got this down, you can play with other styles of brewing, btw. For instance, I’m not much of a white tea fan–but I do enjoy it a fair amount when I use the high-volume-of-leaves/low-steeping-time/many-steeps method. Poke around for information on using a gaiwan–though you could totally do something similar in a cup with an infuser, which honestly I recommend because as awesome as gaiwans are I always burn the everliving fuck out of my fingers when I try to use one, and the Manual Tea Maker No 1, which I love and which solves that problem for me, is kind of pricey.

If you really want to get nerdy, you can fiddle with water temperature. There’s an expensive way to do this, and a cheap one. The expensive one involves buying a variable temperature kettle. Which is super fun, but, yeah, costs.

However, if you have a food thermometer–and if you cook it really is a good idea to have one–you can heat your water to whatever temp you like on a stove or with your regular kettle. Either heat to boiling and test the temp till it drops to where you want it, or test it as it heats till it gets to the right place. I’ll be honest, that sounds like a drag to me, but lots of folks do it and enjoy it. Google around for some recommended temperature ranges, try some things out and see what you like best.

For keeping pots of tea (or sufficiently large and stable cups) warm, check out the various glass, ceramic, or cast iron tea warmers. I use this one, but there are others out there. You put a candle in them–a tea light, right? Yeah, that’s why they’re called that!–and set the pot or cup on top. These work really well, but remember not to just leave the candle burning if you walk away for more than a few minutes. I’ve never actually had a problem, but when it comes to candles you’re better safe than sorry. There are also electric tea warmers out there, just the right size for a cup or a mug to sit on. Once again, don’t forget they’re plugged in and switched on.

Oh, and hey! Almost forgot this one. Matcha has been kind of trendy, and you can get a cool matcha set with a bamboo whisk and learn to froth it, and if that’s something that you’ll enjoy then I salute you! But me, I use a very large mug (which I only fill about three quarters full of water) and a little $3 battery-powered milk frother. No, it’s not meditative or anything. But I like it.

So there you go, a few ways to maybe increase your tea nerdery and also give you a more consistently excellent cup of tea, none of which cost much. If you try only one of them, try the timer. It’s a ridiculously simple tea-hack, honestly, that’s made my life so much nicer.

There’s a lot of contradictory information going around about contacting representatives (by which I mean both Senators and Congresspersons–the term “representatives” is unhelpfully ambiguous at times because it can mean just Congresspersons, or it can mean them and Senators who also do represent us, but anyway) there is, as I said, a lot of contradictory information going around about just how to best contact representatives.

Common wisdom would have it that only calling, on the phone, is effective and that email is entirely useless. I saw someone tweet that snail mail takes weeks–weeks!–to be processed before it reaches anyone’s desk.

So, none of this is actually true.

My source is Annalee Flower Horne:

This is my summary of advice she’s given. Any errors or misstatements are my own.

First of all, phone calls are NOT the only effective way to communicate. Snail mail letters and postcards are absolutely fine. So, it turns out, are emails! HOWEVER.

You want to be direct and clear in your email or letter. Best is to choose one issue. If possible, open with something personal. “As a parent whose children attend public schools,” that’s personal, that’s where this issue hits home for me, “I am absolutely opposed to the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. She is unqualified and will be a disaster for Missouri’s public schools.” And then a specific, actionable request. “I’m calling on you to oppose her nomination.” The personal bit could also be “I have a lot of friends who will be affected by” or even “I am very concerned/upset about…”

EDIT Jan 31: Annalee clarified to me that she advises opening with the “ask” (“I’m calling on Senator X to oppose”) and then give the personal, but she says that as long as the letter is concise, the order isn’t a big deal.

One topic per letter or email. Use your own words. The emails that actually are useless are the form emails that various orgs try to get folks to sign onto–they’re all identical, it’s obvious they’re not the person’s own thoughts, and they’re easy to dismiss. They’re mostly effective as fundraisers for the orgs that set them up. But YOUR own email, that you send, say from the official’s contact form on their website, that you wrote in your own words? They see that. They count that.

I’m seeing some assertions that with phones down, fax is next best, but I’m told that by and large faxes arrive as email attachments, so you might as well just email. In fact, this is what Annalee has to say about faxing:

ONLY CONTACT YOUR OWN REPRESENTATIVES. If you are not a constituent, you will be ignored. And Annalee suggests it’s better to send to the DC office. The local offices deal mostly with local matters, the staff isn’t really trained or equipped to deal with more, and your letters about legislative issues will be forwarded to the DC office anyway, so if you’re snail mailing you might as well send it right to DC.

I want to point out, too, that considering the Senate’s phones have been essentially melting down the last couple days, the cries of “ONLY PHONECALLS WILL DO” seem even more off-target. The phones might go down, and voicemails fill up, but the USPS keeps delivering those letters and the mailroom keeps processing them. So don’t feel like you’re doing something second-best if you’re “only” writing letters or emails.

And as always, if you’re calling, be polite to the interns answering the phones. They get paid a pittance and work long hours, and they’re not in charge of anything but taking your message.

Note, if you’re calling for impeachment (I know, I know, it’s a long shot. I know, Pence would be godawful but with him as Pres we may come out of this with an actual country and not just a smoking crater. And if nothing else Bannon would be gone) those calls/letters should only go to your Congressperson. Impeachment has to start in the House.

Last year I was GoH at Vericon. It was a fabulous time! And while I was there, I gave a GoH speech. It’s the only one I’ve given so far, because usually organizers say something like “you can give a speech, or someone can interview you” and I go “INTERVIEW yes please interview me.”

But for Vericon I gave a speech. I wrote it out very carefully, and printed it out and then marked it all up on the plane, and then I didn’t actually read it, that felt weird, I just kind of talked using the printed speech as an outline. So the text below isn’t exactly what I said that day. But it’s close. And I’m rearranging and reorganizing my office and filing tons of things that need to be filed, and this is one of them, and I’d been meaning to post it, so. Here you go.

There’s a thing that happens when someone criticizes a story or a movie–or a game–in public. You can almost set your watch by it. Somebody is going to turn up to tell you that it’s just a story. You’re overthinking things, it’s just entertainment!

So, maybe I’ve got a stake in saying this–well, definitely I’ve got a stake in saying this, because at this point in my life I make my living telling stories. But stories are important. Stories are how we make sense out of the incredibly noisy and complicated world around us, and how we make sense of what the people around us do. How we make sense of ourselves. I’m convinced that narrative is a basic mode of human thought, and all the stories we hear and read become templates that we can use to understand our lives.

This can be a very positive thing. We can tell ourselves a story about what might happen, if certain other things have already happened, a story that lets us see patterns and predict how those patterns might play out in the future. It lets us anticipate and prepare for things that otherwise might take us by surprise. It helps us create new things. That’s an amazing tool to have. And narratives often hook right into our emotions, emotions that are, I am convinced, a crucial part of our decision-making process. Some decisions are actually very difficult to make without emotions, and in a crisis you don’t want to waste valuable time doing a careful, logical comparison. You want to act fast. Emotions–and the stories that elicit them–are a way to help you do that. So maybe you’ve never met an angry bear. But maybe you know a lot of stories about the tragic and frightening things that happen when people meet angry bears and so when you do meet one you know without having to stop and think it through that you’re in danger. Those stories might not even all be about bears, specifically, but there’s enough similarity between angry bears and angry lions and angry targs that when you actually meet that bear you can make a super quick assessment of the situation.

But there’s a negative side, too. We mostly don’t think of ourselves as reacting to the world based on stories. It mostly just feels like we’re seeing things as they really are. But those narratives aren’t just organizing what we’re seeing, they’re shaping and filtering it, organizing what we experience so that what we experience fits into the narrative frame we’re using. Sometimes this isn’t a big deal, but sometimes the choice of narrative frame can make the difference between life and death.

So, let’s talk robots and artificial intelligence. There’s been a fair amount of comment recently on the potential dangers of AI. Elon Musk thinks maybe a superintelligent spam filter might set out to kill all humans because that’s the most efficient way to eliminate spam. Stephen Hawking thinks there’s a real danger superintelligent AIs might out-evolve us, which might lead to our extinction. They’re both hoary old science fiction tropes, and Dr Hawking you’re fabulous at physics but, dude, that’s not even how evolution works.

Plus, we’re maybe kind of jumping the gun a little. AI is way more impressive than it was even a few years ago, and it’s getting better all the time, but–our new World Go champion notwithstanding–we’re a ways from even basic intelligence, let alone the super kind. It’s cool that OK Google can tell me the weather–usually, there was that time I’d been in Oslo a nearly a week and asked Google what was the temperature outside and it told me how warm it was in St Louis–and maybe list some restaurants, or sometimes pull up a relevant Wikipedia article. But it can’t do much more than that. It certainly can’t think for itself. Google’s not alone in that–I don’t see Siri and Cortana teaming up to wipe humanity from the Earth any time soon. And if Alexa tries taking over we can just turn on our radios and let NPR tell her what to do.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Skynet has a dastardly plan to enslave humanity by beating us at Go and/or repeatedly saying “I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that” over and over. But I think it’s going to be quite a while before we see self aware AIs smart enough to plot the end of Humanity. And honestly I wouldn’t bet on that being something super smart AIs would want.

But we tend to think that if they’re smart, they’ll think like we do. So our ideas about the dangers of AI are inescapably ideas about the dangers of other people. And when it comes to AI, it’s a particular sort of people we’re using as a model.

The very first robot story–the first ever use of the word “robot” in fact–is a robot uprising story. But when Karel Čapek wrote RUR he wasn’t worried about artificial intelligence. The robots of his story aren’t mechanical, they’re made of some sort of synthetic biological material. And the word “robot” which Čapek famously coined, comes from a Czech word for “slave.” It’s a story about the revolt of people made on an assembly line (the first actual assembly line had debuted just ten years earlier). It’s a story about the rebellion of people who were built to be the cheapest, most efficient workers possible, workers you didn’t have to pay, or feed anything in particular, or take any notice or care of. In other words, slaves.

And Čapek ‘s story hit a nerve. It didn’t just give us the word for robot, it is the ultimate model for nearly all the robot uprising stories since. So that model–robots as slaves, with all the assumed dangers attendant on enslaving people who outnumber you–is the model we’re using when we think about super smart machines. This has not been lost on any number of science fiction writers, who have used robot and AI stories to comment explicitly on oppression and racism. But just personally–well, I won’t go into my problems with the whole “slaves in my allegory are machines and the masters are human beings” bit, though that’s kind of icky when you think about it, but on top of that I think it’s a dangerous model to use as a basis for actual, serious real world predictions about artificial intelligence.

It’s demonstrably a dangerous model to use for interactions with humans. If you’re white, you probably know what it’s like to go into a majority non-white neighborhood. Possibly you shorthand that as a “bad” neighborhood, or a “dangerous” one. You probably feel intimidated, even threatened. The hostility of the people living there is assumed.

So what’s dangerous about that, besides the danger a white person is in? Well, it’s not the white person who’s in danger. This is not an abstract question for me, I know very precisely what happens when a young white woman on her own is stranded in the middle of the night in a poor, majority black neighborhood: The people there help her. They offer to change her flat tire (I didn’t have a spare), and when she walks half a mile down the road to an all-night gas station they let her into the locked cashier’s cubicle so she can call Triple A (cell phones weren’t really a thing at the time). And while she waits for the tow truck, the people who stop for gas ask, “Miss, are you all right? Do you need some help?” And she says no, and they say “All right, I just wanted to be sure you were okay.” And they buy their gas and go.

And when the tow truck driver comes he says something like “Wow, this is a really dangerous neighborhood, and it’s the middle of the night! You must have been scared. You’re lucky nothing happened to you.” And she says, “Actually, everyone I ran into was pretty helpful.”

Because people generally are. Why should anyone expect differently? And I will admit to you, while I was sitting there outside that gas station, I expected differently, and I was surprised at what actually happened. When really I shouldn’t have been. So why was I?

Because of the narrative. The one about oppressed people who’ll rise up if given half a chance and do us the way we’ve done them.

So, one result of this narrative is that often white people who find themselves in majority non-white neighborhoods are needlessly afraid of the people around them.

Another result? When, say, a young Black woman knocks on a door in the middle of the night looking for help, the White homeowner will assume she’s a threat and shoot her to death. When Black men confront police–or, let’s be entirely frank, sometimes when the police are faced with Black children–the police assume they’re threats and shoot them. This narrative is not harmless. People have died because of it. Lots of people.

And it’s this same model so many people are using to seriously predict the effect of AI on our future. It doesn’t even work right now, for dealing with other people. But that fact is invisible to a lot of people, because we don’t think much about the narratives we use to make sense out of the world. And narratives, they’re sticky. In her Hugo-winning essay “We Have Always Fought” Kameron Hurley gives the made up example of the things everyone knows about llamas–they’re scaly, right? And carnivorous? Everyone knows that, it’s common knowledge. And sure, sometimes you run into a llama that’s fuzzy and eats grass–maybe the only llamas you’ve ever met have a distaste for meat and a distinct lack of scales, but those are exceptions! They have to be, because everyone knows what llamas are like.

That’s how unexamined narratives work. Exception after exception won’t change our assuming the truth of the narrative. Nothing will change that, except our recognizing it as a narrative–not reality itself, but a frame that forces reality into a pattern we’re familiar with.

So all the high profile alarm about the dangers of AI isn’t a problem just because the predictions people are seriously making might be inaccurate. It’s that when I hear people make these predictions, it’s not only really obvious that they’re using that narrative for a framework, but more importantly, that they’re unaware of it, and so almost certainly unaware of the way it’s applied to actual, existing human beings. This doesn’t make Elon Musk, or Bill Gates, or Stephen Hawking or anyone else racists, or terrible people–we are all, to some extent, unable to escape the narratives that surround us, and that we frame our lives with. But it does mean that the narrative gets reinforced, by people who command lots of respect and large audiences.


And I’m not at all saying that writers who use that narrative, or readers who enjoy reading it, are bad people or necessarily doing anything wrong. I’m not into telling writers what they should write, or readers what they should read–I’m actively opposed to that, in fact. Writers should write the stories they want to write, the way they want to write them. Readers should read the stories they want to read. But I do think it’s important for writers and readers both to be aware of the narratives they’re drawing on, and how those narratives might distort our view of the world, and influence our attitudes and choices. Like technology itself, narrative can be applied in ways that are beneficial, or in ways that are not.

And like technology itself, knowing what the potential effects are is crucial to avoiding negative outcomes. And it’s the thing you don’t see, that you don’t realize exists, that will trip you up. Knowing the narrative is there, you can work with it or work around it, maybe consciously choose a better one for whatever situation you’re in. If you don’t recognize or acknowledge its existence, you will have no choice in the matter. An angry bear right out in the open, that you know is angry, is far less dangerous than the angry bear behind some underbrush in a woods that everyone knows is entirely safe and bear-free. Your hike, wherever it takes you, will be the better for your having an actual, accurate idea of where the bears are.

Now, I do think it’s important to consider the possible effects of creating actual AIs. Very few new technologies have been unambiguously good, or implemented as well as they might be, and it’s wise to think ahead and avoid what dangers we can. But let’s take some time to separate things we’re assuming are true because they’re part of a familiar story that feels realistic to us, and things that are actually true. And let’s maybe consider how the things we fear about AI are literally fears about other people, and the way that addressing those fears directly might actually move us toward some solutions to real problems, and allow us to see real dangers ahead much more clearly.

Thank you.

So, then I took questions, and a person in the audience who was, in fact, an expert with relevant degrees, pointed out that there are already problems with AIs that have nothing to do with the Robot Uprising and everything to do with the fact that the data all these neural nets are taking in is not, in fact, completely neutral and objective but comes loaded with a host of prejudices and assumptions. We assume that if a computer gives us the result it’s perfectly objective and without any kind of flaw, but even if AI logic is completely objective (not an assumption I think we should make, but let’s do that for the sake of argument), its conclusions won’t be objective if the data it’s working with isn’t. This can have seemingly small effects–Netflix steers certain people to watch certain things, making parts of its inventory effectively invisible to certain groups of viewers–to situations where people don’t even get to see job listings because they don’t fit a certain set of demographic characteristics, or completely law abiding citizens end up on lists of people likely to commit violent crime, because of course the algorithm is using historical data and we’re going to ignore the way that historically black citizens have been–and are–disproportionately arrested and convicted for particular crimes, crimes that are also committed by plenty of white citizens but they don’t get the same reaction from the justice system.

In these cases, the supposed perfect objectivity of the AI is just reinforcing existing cultural assumptions. But that’s a big ‘just’ and it’s one that has very real, life altering and life threatening consequences for quite a few people. So, you know, when you’re worrying about the danger of super-intelligent AIs, maybe add that to your list.

So, the approaching inauguration of the President Elect–who even before taking office has distinguished himself as the absolute worst president this country has ever had, and who will, the moment he takes office, be in violation of the Constitution–is one of those “you have to laugh because he’s so ridiculous and also otherwise you’d despair for the future of the nation” things.

I’m not sure there’s anything any of us can do. But then again, the couple times so far that the Republicans have backed off something it’s been largely because of public outcry–they pulled back on their attempt to hamstring the Office of Congressional Ethics, and very recently have delayed hearings on appointees that were set to go before any ethics reviews could be completed (noticing a theme here? Cause I am).

So, will pitching a fit to our representatives do anything? Who knows? But why not do it?

So here’s what I’m thinking. What if every Monday each of us addresses a post card to our Representative (you can find their name & address here, I’m planning to use the DC office), with our own return address (because representatives only listen to their constituents, so we need to let them know we’re in their district) and hand written the word IMPEACH. Maybe a note with a reason or two why if you feel like it, but honestly I think that one word says it all. Put a stamp on it (34c to mail a postcard in the US) and drop it in the mail. Every Monday. Until further notice.

You can get sheets of postcards and run them through your printer if you have one, with the addresses, but I think the hand-written IMPEACH is the best way to do that bit of it.

Every Monday. Like clockwork.

Now, some folks will argue that if Trump ever got the boot, Pence would be worse because he would seem reasonable by comparison and then folks would support him, where Trump will have alienated everyone except the outright deplorable nazi sympathizers & do more damage to the Republican party that way. Thing is, Trump is set to do quite a lot of damage to the entire freaking country as it is, and Pence is still there, able to be his nasty, toxically bigoted self. There is no actual good outcome here, but it seems to me that losing the guy who’ll happily dismantle the country to stuff his own pockets, who’s already threatening reprisals against journalists who report things that he doesn’t like, or who ask him actual questions, and who’s bidding fair to start wars, drop nukes, and turn the country over to whoever he owes money to is maybe a step in the right direction.

At any rate, I invite you to join me in the Monday Post Card Club. Boxes of sheets of 200 post cards are available at most office supply stores for $25-30, a post card stamp is 34c, times 52 that’s about $18 a year. You probably already have a sharpie. It might not do any good, but then, you never know. At the very least we’ve let our elected officials hear from us. What do you think?

I was going to make this a twitter thread, but while threads are a thing that works (more or less) on Twitter, making them can be kind of awkward. So I figured I’d blog this and link to it on Twitter.

So, I’ve been seeing some tweets and comments around that imply that someone(s) out there has been complaining that publicly mourning celebrities is somehow improper, or insincere, or just, you know, merely performative. I seem to have muted or blocked anyone in my own feeds likely to say something like this, so I’m not taking issue with any particular comment. I’m just thinking about the idea that “performative” mourning is insincere somehow, or only about getting the mourner social brownie points or whatever.

The way I see it, though, all mourning is performative. Not all grieving, right? The way you feel when you lose someone important to you, that’s private. But all the other things. Going to your relative’s funeral? Performative. Going to the funeral home to tell your friend or neighbor you’re sorry for their loss? One hundred percent performative. Hell, holding a funeral at all is entirely performance.

Funerals aren’t for the dead. They are social activities, and they fulfill particular social functions–ones that are really, really important to us, as demonstrated by the very strong urge to have at least some small scrap of a funeral for someone who dies in circumstances that make whatever one’s standard funerary practices are impossible.

Mourning practices do a number of things–they provide some kind of closure, sure. An official “now that’s done” so people can move forward. But they also affirm (and re-affirm) communities. They affirm the deceased’s membership in one or more communities, and in the process also affirm the continued existence of those communities. Mourners declare their relationship to the deceased, and incidentally their relationships to each other.

Mourning publicly also allows people to offer support to the bereaved–those co-workers or friends who show up at the funeral home to say an awkward “I’m so sorry” do help, I can tell you from personal experience. And I know it’s one hundred percent performative–this person doesn’t know my grandma or my mom or my uncle or whoever, they’re turning up to tell me they know what I’m going through, and they care. And the other folks who come–the friends and business associates and acquaintances of the deceased, who the family may never have met, they are also performing. They come to tell the bereaved that the deceased was important to them, that they honor them, that they’ll miss them.

It’s all performance. Every bit of it. It’s nearly all public performance. There are customs and rituals associated with it, so that when the time comes, you know (mostly) what to do, to activate that support, to let people know that you need that comfort now.

It gets weird, with public figures. These are people that might be very, very important to us, might have formed our childhoods, given us inspiration, been constant companions in one way or another, and yet we’ve never met them, and they never had any idea that we existed. It’s not the same as a close loved one dying. But it’s not nothing. And what do you do, when someone not exactly family dies, but you had some sort of relationship with them? Well, if you were in the same town you’d put on nice clothes and comb your hair and go to the funeral parlor and tell the family how sorry you were, how important the deceased was to you, maybe tell them about some time they really helped you out. And then you move aside for the next person, maybe talk with some folks, and go home. Maybe you send flowers, that will sit there in the funeral home and in the church as a conspicuously visible token of your tie to the deceased, or their family, or a particular member of that family.

We aren’t any of us going to Carrie Fisher’s wake. Her family doesn’t want to slog through thousands of cards or letters, and there’s no mortuary large enough to hold the flowers we might all send. But we can blog or tweet. And yes, it’s performative. Like all funeral customs and public mourning it’s performative. It’s meant to send a message. “I am a member of this community, and this person was important to us. This community recognizes their loss. This community wants the deceased’s family to know how important this person was to us, and how sorry we are to hear they’ve left us.” And maybe her family doesn’t see most of it, but they likely know it’s there. I suspect that, like “I’m sorry” at the funeral home, it helps.

And it’s not just for the family, of course. It’s for that other, maybe intersecting community (friends, co-workers, fans, whatever). No, losing George Michael or David Bowie or Prince or Carrie Fisher probably isn’t even remotely like losing your aunt or your sister or your daughter. But it’s not nothing.

It’s all performative. It’s all for show. Hell, any time you get dressed and walk out the door it’s performative, it’s for show. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily insincere or bad or somehow wrong and shallow. It means you can’t communicate without doing a thing that others will understand–and during a time of stress we have a series of more or less ritual acts to make, more or less formulaic lines to speak, wearing more or less conventional clothes, to get us through, together. It’s all for show.

Some of the people publicly mourning may be insincere, sure, but that’s not really the point, is it? Mostly they’re not. No, the problem isn’t that tweets about Bowie or Michael or Prince or Fisher aren’t sincere, it’s that the critic doesn’t think they have standing to mourn, or thinks those tweets are somehow improper. But, you know, nobody gets to decide that for you, do they.

No. They do not.

Hey, you know what, I’ve been so distracted by Things and Life–stuff like current events, and turning in the next novel to my editors–that I missed the start of the annual Worldbuilders drive.

Do you know about Worldbuilders? It’s basically a drive for donations to Heifer International, which is a charity I like a lot. There are auctions for various cool things you can bid on, and prizes for donating, and it’s just generally a lot of fun and for a good cause, so check it out!

So, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate it.

And, uh, do you know about what’s happening in North Dakota?

Dakota Access pipeline: the who, what and why of the Standing Rock protests

What is the Dakota Access pipeline?

The Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) is a $3.7bn project that would transport crude oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota to a refinery to Patoka, Illinois, near Chicago.

The 1,1720-mile pipeline, roughly 30 inches in diameter, would carry 470,000 barrels per day and is a project of company Energy Transfer Partners.

Who is opposing the project and why?

The local Standing Rock Sioux tribe and thousands of Native American supporters from across North America have set up camps in Cannon Ball to try and block the oil project. Opponents of DAPL say the project threatens sacred native lands and could contaminate their water supply from the Missouri river, which is the longest river in North America.


Activists call themselves “water protectors” and argue that the pipeline poses similar threats to the now defeated Keystone XL, but lament that DAPL has failed to garner the same amount of national attention. Tribal leaders also say that the US army corps of engineers’ initial decision to allow the pipeline to run within a half-mile of the local reservation was done without consulting tribal governments and without a thorough study of impacts.

This means, the tribe says, that the project violates federal law and native treaties with the US government.

The protesters are unarmed and peaceful. The response by police? Claims that the protests are “an ongoing riot” which totally justifies the use of teargas, rubber bullets, water cannon, and concussion grenades.

Sunday night 167 people were injured, including one person who was hit directly by a concussion grenade and last I heard was in surgery to have their arm amputated as a result. You can donate to her medical fund here, if you are willing and able to do that.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that it needed more time to consider whether or not to grant the final permit needed to use Army land under the river–which prompted Energy Transfer Partners to sue. But there appears to be a drop-dead date–

[Standing Rock Sioux tribal chair, Dave Archambault II] also pointed out that the corporation has previously said in court that if it were not delivering oil by 1 January 2017, its shipper contracts would expire and the project would be in jeopardy.

“So they are rushing to get the pipeline in the ground hastily to meet that deadline,” Archambault said. “The only urgency here was created by their own reckless choice to build the pipeline before it had all the permits to do so.”

Y’all. Police in North Dakota are firing rubber bullets and tear gas and concussion grenades at peaceful protesters, using fucking fire hoses on them in sub-freezing temperatures. You can see video at this link.

Peaceful protesters who are trying to protect their land. Tribal land. Trying to protect their actual supply of drinking water. This is happening now, and has been happening for weeks and weeks. (Well, on a larger scale it’s been happening for centuries, but.)

Here are things you can do:

You can sign a petition asking President Obama to stop the pipeline permanently. No idea what good it will do, but hey.

You can call various folks, including the White House. Click on the “Weekly Call to Action” tab, there’s a script all ready for you. And as always, if you can’t call, write letters.

You can donate to the cause, if that’s within your means.

You can also donate to the Standing Rock Medic & Healer Council, who are providing what medical services they can to the protesters. They need specific items, which are listed at the link, and they also take donations.

Or maybe you’re not in a position to do any of those things. There’s so much going on right now that needs attention. But do what you can.

What? I’ve never done writing prompts before! But, friends, times are no longer normal.

Here’s the deal–it’s time to be politically engaged, if you can. It’s time to make phone calls, if you can, and send letters, if you can. If you can’t, if there’s something else you can do, do that. If the best you can do is hold on and survive, well, hold on and survive. Do whatever thing you can.

(It’s time to march in the streets, if you can. Not everyone can, and that’s all right. Do what you can.)

Basic information–when you write or call your representatives, they need to be your representatives. They are obliged to pay attention to you. No other representative is. Sometimes someone will solicit opinions from the wider public, and definitely speak up then, but otherwise, you have something to say to the Senate or the Congress? Contact your senators, your congressperson.

If you don’t know who those folks are, click here and put in your ZIP code. Sometimes there will be more than one congressperson in a ZIP code and you’ll have to refine the search with a specific address. But there’s basic contact information for each rep there, and links to their websites.

I’m given to understand that phone calls are top priority, and letters after that. Emails and social media contacts don’t get the same attention. So–call, if you’re able to do that. Write letters if you can’t call (lots of us are phobic about the phone, to be entirely honest I find talking on the phone unpleasant myself and cold calls like this are beyond unpleasant).

It helps to know what you’re going to say on the phone. So you might as well write a letter first, make your calls using the letter as an outline for what you’re going to say, and then pop the letters in the mail for good measure. Since you’ve already written them anyway, right?

Okay. Remember I said above that sometimes a rep will solicit opinions from the wider public? Well, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has set up a phone poll with a very simple question: do you support President Obama’s ACA, or would you like to see it repealed? The phone number has changed at least once–I would not be surprised if he got a set of replies that didn’t suit his purpose and is trying again to see if maybe the numbers will change this time. So, have your say.

Here’s the number, last I heard:

202-225-0600

Call, there’ll be up to a couple minutes of dead silence after the ringing stops. Hold on. Then you’ll be asked what options you want– if you want to express your opinion about the ACA, that’ll be option 2 on the menu. Then you sit through a bullshit spiel and are asked to press 1 if you support the ACA and 2 if you don’t care if uninsured folks die in the streets. Okay, they don’t phrase it like that, but, you know. IMPORTANT if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like talking on the phone, I swear to you there is never a time when you have to speak to a person. Just press buttons.

NEXT.

There are so many issues to choose from, and so I figured I’d parcel them out, right? Hence the writing prompt. It turns out, though, that someone is already organizing something similar, and this week’s Call to Action is on the topic I was planning (probably for obvious reasons). So, maybe bookmark that link and check back every week/few days.

The CtA involves a phonecall to the House Oversight Committee, which I did last week (though I had to dial the number over and over for nearly an hour to get through) and it involves, depending, either talking to a human or leaving a voicemail.

Here’s the number:

202-225-5074

Here’s a script for you:

I’m —- —– , a constituent calling to let the commitee know that I support Rep. Elijah Cummings’s call for a bipartisan review of Trump’s “financial arrangements” for potential conflicts of interest before he’s sworn in as president. Please ask Chairman Chaffetz to immediately begin conducting a review to ensure that President-elect Trump does not have any actual or perceived conflicts of interests. I want the Committee to make sure Trump and his advisors comply with all legal and regulatory ethical requirements.

You can see why this was my choice for this week. Do it today if you can, offices will be closing for the holiday, this is a short week.

If you’ve still got the time and the wherewithal, express the same sentiments to your own reps. Use this script, or write your own letter, use it as a template for your call, and pop copies in the mail for each of your representatives.

Need more information about those potential conflicts of interest? Try these links:

Donald Trump Meeting Suggests He Is Keeping Up His Business Ties (New York Times)

Trump’s Empire: A Maze of Debts and Opaque Ties (New York Times) From before the election.

“But an investigation by The New York Times into the financial maze of Mr. Trump’s real estate holdings in the United States reveals that companies he owns have at least $650 million in debt — twice the amount than can be gleaned from public filings he has made as part of his bid for the White House. The Times’s inquiry also found that Mr. Trump’s fortunes depend deeply on a wide array of financial backers, including one he has cited in attacks during his campaign.”

Being in debt–even to foreign banks, as is the case here–is no big deal in and of itself. The President of the United States being in debt to the tune of $650 million? Including to banks in countries that would doubtless love to have a lever to influence the US government? That’s another kettle of fish entirely.

Donald Trump’s questionable “blind trust” setup just got more questionable (Washington Post)

Donald Trump’s decision to leave his children in control of his fortune during his presidency was already an unusual and eyebrow-raising setup. And on Friday, it became even more so.

A day after Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, announced that Trump’s three oldest children — Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric — would control what he labeled a “blind trust” for the president-elect, the Trump campaign announced Friday afternoon that all three would also serve on Trump’s presidential transition team executive committee.

Oh, yeah, that’s that one kind of blind trust where it’s totally not a blind trust and you aren’t even going to pretend it is, right? Totally legit.

Anyway. Happy Monday, and let’s let our elected representatives hear what we have to say. It’s what they’re there for to begin with, they’re public servants. They’re our employees.

____
P.S. If you’re tempted to comment and/or email telling my you’re a fan of my books but you’re not here for having politics crammed down your throat, I assure you there are far more productive things to do with your time. For one thing all fiction is political to begin with but, I mean, seriously, have you actually read my work?

Similarly, if you’re planning to tell me you’ll stop following me or buying my work if I have the temerity to exercise my rights as an American citizen to take part in the political process, I will possibly delete your missive and certainly have a hearty laugh at your expense.

P.P.S. If following election stuff is stressing you out in a really awful way and you need to stop following me, here and/or on Twitter and/or Tumblr, by all means do. Exercise self care. Hang on and survive.

As I’ve said a few times before, I don’t get anywhere near as much time to read fiction as I’d like. But I do read when I can!

As I’ve also said before, I’m not much of a critic. Reviews aren’t a thing I do well. But I do like to mention it when I’ve read something I really liked, even if I have trouble explaining why I liked it.

At any rate, here are a few things I’ve read in the recent past:

What Lot’s Wife Saw, by Ioanna Bourazopoulou, translated from Greek by Yiannis Panas

This was…strange. But really, really good. How to describe it? A designer of odd crossword puzzles of his own idiosyncratic invention is asked to read a collection of letters from eyewitnesses to …a crime? A conspiracy? a mysterious series of events at any rate, in the hope that he will be able to use his puzzle-solving skills to determine what actually happened. This takes place in a world where much of Europe has been flooded by the Mediterranean, and a mysterious Salt has begun pouring into the world from one particular place. Yes, it’s where you think it would be, and the references to the story of Sodom in the Book of Genesis are quite explicit. The narrative is full of people doing strange and inexplicable things, sometimes grimly funny, often emotionally overwrought. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I began to tire near the end, and hoped that it would indeed stick its landing and not just trail off. It did, indeed, stick its landing. If you’re looking for something really strange and really really good, give this a shot.

The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Yeah, okay, see. Here’s part of what I assume is the cover copy:

Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution. As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion.

Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation – the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan finds that she must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world.

So, this is chock full of action and fights and battles and betrayals and political intrigue. And those world-ships? They are all biological. Nothing in this fleet is built, it’s all birthed, and there are tentacles and blood and mucous and body fluids everywhere. It’s kind of awesome fun. You should totally read it when it comes out. In, um, February of next year. I kind of got an ARC and for once had a chance to read it before the actual release. Which doesn’t happen very often.

Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

This is a Ruritanian fantasy. It’s also a pretty straight-ahead romance, which isn’t generally my thing, but I enjoyed it quite a lot. It takes place in the fictional tiny European country of Alpennia, and involves inheritances and wills and political intrigue. There’s also magic, very Christianity-based, a matter of petitioning saints in the right way at the right times. It’s the sort of thing that could easily turn me off, but I thought was handled very very well. Basically an eccentric wealthy baron leaves nearly everything he owns–except his title and the estate attached to it–to his god-daughter, a young woman nearly at her legal majority but being pressured to find a husband who can support her, since she has no means of her own. “Everything the baron owns” includes his bodyguard/duellist, another young woman. The bodyguard can’t be freed yet, because of the terms of the baron’s will, and besides the new young baron really resents being done out of the money he expected to inherit and will stop at nothing to get it, as well as his revenge. This is lots of fun, and Goodreads calls it “Alpennia #1” which implies there are more, so those are going on my long long TBR list for whenever I can get to them.

So, there’s a thing I’d been kind of thinking about for the past couple weeks, and it seems to me that it’s kind of become relevant in a really horrible way.

At one point, a few weeks ago, someone in my hearing made the observation that the Nazis had so utterly failed to have human empathy that they might be considered more human-shaped machines than real human beings. I took polite issue with the statement at the time. I will take more public, emphatic issue with it now.

Here’s the thing–the Nazis? Those concentration camp guards, the people who dug and filled in mass graves, led prisoners to gas chambers, all of that? They were not inhuman monsters. They were human beings, and they weren’t most of them that different from anyone you might meet on your morning walk, or in the grocery store.

I know it’s really super uncomfortable to look around you and realize that–that your neighbors, or even you, yourself, might, given circumstances, commit such atrocities. Your mind flinches from it, you don’t want to even think about it. It can’t be. You know that you’re a good person! Your neighbors and co-workers are so nice and polite and decent. You can’t even imagine it, so there must have been something special, something particularly different about the people who enthusiastically embraced Hitler.

I’m here to tell you there wasn’t.

I’m quite certain those people who committed terrible atrocities were very nice to each other! Super polite and nice to other good Aryan citizens of the Reich, and certainly to their families. Of course they were! They were perfectly nice human beings.

It wasn’t that they were incapable of empathy, of any human feeling. It was more a matter of where they drew the boundaries of that empathy.

Remember that the next time you find yourself saying “I’m not racist, it’s just…” or “I’m not racist, but…” because that just and that but are where the borders of your own empathy lie. And maybe you’re okay with those being the boundaries–but, look, when someone calls you on that, don’t try to pretend it’s not there.

We’ve most of us learned the first part of the lesson really well–the Nazis were horrible! Racism is bad!–without having learned the next part of the lesson: no one thinks they’re a villain, not even Nazis. After all, those Jews were a real threat to the Aryan race! They had to do what they did.

No one thinks they’re racist, because racists are bad, and I’m not bad! I’m a good, decent person. It’s just that….

Yeah. Right.

Think about that. I’m not just talking to folks who were willing to vote for a flagrantly racist, willfully ignorant, obviously unqualified and unstable narcissist for president for what they keep insisting were totally not racist reasons. I’m also talking to folks who are dismayed to see said incompetent unstable narcissist set to take office but who say everyone should calm down, it won’t be that bad. Because this is the USA, not freaking Germany.

There was nothing special about the German people, nothing supernaturally evil about Hitler. They were all human beings, and it can happen here, and it’s far more likely to happen here if we pretend otherwise, because it’s the thing you won’t look at about yourself that will lead you right over the cliff you keep insisting isn’t really there, all the while you’re tumbling to the rocks below.

Stop telling yourself it can’t happen here. (A registry for Muslims? With maybe some kind of ID so we know who all the Muslims are? Totally reasonable, totally un-racist, and after all we’re Americans, so it’ll all be fine.)

(Read that thread)

Stop acting as though calling some action “racist” is beyond the pale, unthinkably horrible to do to someone. Stop assuming that the people you know and talk to everyday can’t be racist because after all they’re so polite to you. Stop assuming that “racist” means “inhuman monster.” The end result of doing this is to make it impossible to call anyone or anything racist that isn’t cross-burning, actual lynching, Nazi-levels of racism. And sometimes not even then, as we’ve seen in recent weeks.

Which makes it impossible to do anything about racism–prevent it, address it, anything. Even in ourselves. Especially in ourselves. Which allows it to grow unchecked.

It can happen here. Flagrant racists are often very polite and decent people (so long as you’re white). The worst monsters of history were not inhuman monsters. They were all too human.