Archive for October, 2011

I spent most of Grade Six drawing maps. The result is a knowledge of geography that serves me well to this day, except for a few newer states in Central Europe and Asia. Another result is that I fully agree with Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland that most fantasy maps lack any sense of geography, history, or economics.

Recently, I’ve been spending my free time refining the map that will be the background for my efforts at fiction. As I work, I’ve developed some basic rules for ensuring that, whatever else I might do wrongly, at least the geography in my fantasy world will be plausible:

  • Remember continental drift. Your land masses should look as though they would roughly fit into each other. If you have trouble coming up with realistic land masses, try sketching the outlines of clouds or stains; you’ll be surprised how realistic the result will be.
  • Rivers and streams don’t start and end just anywhere. They arise in the mountains or hills, and usually empty into a larger body of water, such as a lake or an ocean. A few may go underground instead. Almost all grow wider as they move away from their source.
  • Mountain ranges are generally the result of the collision of tectonic plates. This means that they will rarely meet at convenient right angles to each other, the way that the mountains of Mordor do in Tolkien.
  • Ecosystems follow set patterns. You don’t have a rain forest next to tundra or desert. Instead, you have prairie and scrubland inbetween. A half an hour’s research on climate zones should be enough for you to get the idea.
  • Cities, towns, and farms don’t appear just anywhere. They are separated by however much land is needed for them to be self-sustaining, the only exceptions being large towns that are supported by a circle of small towns and farms that support them. In a primarily rural culture, they will be close to a water source. As population and trade develop, habitations may be positioned to service traffic on a road, or to take advantage of a certain trade. When you place a habitation, know why it’s there, even if the reason never gets into the story.
  • Consider how people get around. If water is the main transport, you need either a lot of coast line or else large rivers that can be navigated for much of their length. If roads are used more than water, then you’ll have several grades of road, probably ranging from highways like the Roman roads to half over-grown foot paths. All these decisions will affect how far anyone can travel in a day.
  • Forests and wilderness areas are much larger in pre-industrial cultures than they are today.
  • Most lands have a history that involves a succession of different cultures passing through them. Your names should reflect that, suggesting borrowings or corruptions from several different languages mingling together. A particular region might have a concentration of names from one language, and you should know why.
  • Be prepared for your landscape to evolve as you write. However, if changes are necessary, try to make them follow the rest of the guidelines given here.

Put this way, many of these points may sound obvious. But open the frontspiece of your typical fantasy paperback, and the chances are that the map will suffer from one or more of the faults I mention. Some have nearly all of them.

But take the time to create a believable map, and you’ll know more about your story’s background. You might even find story details or plot elements that wouldn’t have occurred to you if you map didn’t have at least a toehold in reality.

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Years ago, on a sun-drenched afternoon at the Vancouver Folk Festival, folk singer Utah Phillips was talking about his life. Having just returned from the Korean War, he was working in Joe Hill House in Salt Lake City, and had decided he was a pacifist and an anarchist. Then his mentor told him, “Renouncing violence isn’t enough. You have to give up all the privileges that your life has left you with.”

I’m sure the tale grew in the telling – after all, who in the 1950s talked about privilege? But Utah was a storyteller, and probably would have admitted as much if cornered. But, despite such doubts, the comment stuck in my mind, and became the foundation of my thinking of what it means to be a male feminist. You can’t just announce that you believe in feminist principles or send a donation; you have to try living by your beliefs as well.

What do I mean by that? In some ways, I can more easily explain what I don’t mean. I don’t just mean ruefully admitting the truth of The Male Privilege Checklist. Nor do I mean a Gandhi-like renunciation of your normal life. Still less does it mean somehow a feminization of your thoughts and your actions (whatever that means), neutering yourself, or wallowing in guilt.

Instead, what I am talking about is a final act of maturation. Broadly-speaking, growing up is a gradually increasing awareness of other people and your responsibilities towards them – a journey away from egocentricity. You learn, for instance, to take turns, and not to interrupt others when they are speaking. You learn (or should) that little bits of politeness help people to get along.

Trying to move away from your male privilege might be called the last step in this process. A male feminist needs to rethink his way of interacting with people – especially women. He needs to learn not to be the first to speak when someone asks for suggestions, knowing that social conditioning makes many women slower to express opinions. He needs to learn to listen to women, and not to take charge automatically. He needs to realize that he is not automatically the center of attention, that he won’t always dictate the topic of conversation, or that women will view his concerns as paramount over their own. In general, he needs to learn a sense of restraint, and to extinguish the egocentricity that male gender roles encourage in him.

In particular, the male feminist needs this responsible attitude in matters of sex and gender. He needs to stop assuming, as catcallers on the street do, that, because he is interested in a woman, she will be automatically be interested in him, and that he has a right to impose his attention on her. He needs to learn that, while nothing is wrong with appreciating that a woman is attractive, something is very wrong with expressing that appreciation in any way that makes her uncomfortable. He needs to accept “No” as an answer, and to pay attention to the subtler signals of human sexuality that indicate whether attraction is mutual and might progress. If he misinterprets, he can never retreat into claiming that “I can’t help myself” or “Men are just following their biological imperative,” because he has chosen  to be personally responsible for his behavior.

This rethinking has to be extended to every aspect of his life – even small ones like how he occupies social space. What’s more, he needs to keep his choice constantly in mind, because most of his upbringing and experience tells him to do exactly the opposite of these things. Often, he will fail to meet his own standards, or over-compensate to the point that he looks or feels ridiculous.

Other times, both men and women will give him privileges he hasn’t asked for, listening to him while ignoring a woman, or hiring him in preference to a woman. He may never be sure that is what is happening, but the possibility will haunt him. Sometimes, he may be able to turn his male privilege to an advantage, such as advising that a woman be hired, but that will be qualified satisfaction at best. Most of the time, he won’t be able to do even that.

No question, renouncing your privileges as a man isn’t easy. Nor is it completely possible in our current culture. But it’s one of those things that’s worth trying despite its impossibility. After all, the alternative is to wallow in self-centeredness. And who wants to remain a child all his life?

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For the past two years, I’ve been digitalizing my music collection. Considering I still have music I bought in high school, it’s a staggering assortment of LPs, EPs, cassettes, and CDs, and I have at least another year before I finish. Probably the only reason I haven’t abandoned the project is the certain knowledge that, if I do, in the near future I’ll be unable to play some irreplaceable music. But the project has led me to rediscover music that I haven’t listened to in years, and taught me something about my musical tastes.

In particular, among the 7200 tracks I’ve digitalized so far, there are some artists to whom I listen far more than others. Putting aside classical favorites for another blog, most of the ones I keep returning to fall into the category of folk rock. Most, too, either have intelligent lyrics, a strong beat, a sense of showmanship (in the sense of how to build excitement in a show or on an album), or all three. Many are English or Scottish.

My fifteen favorite are:

Battlefield Band

One of the two classic Scottish folk groups (the other is Silly Wizard), Battlefield Band has released dozens of albums, and a constantly changing lineup over several decades. Its music always includes a large number of instrumentals, and original lyrics about contemporary or historical Scotland. My favorite album from the group is Celtic Hotel, whose memorable cuts include “The Roving Dies Hard,”a look at the restlessness of Scots over the centuries and “Seacoalers,” a hard, unsentimental look at the bottom of the mining industry.

The Mollys

A Tex-Mex band whose heyday was the Nineties, The Mollys were the front for song-writer Nancy McCallion, whose persona might be described as a milder, female version of Shane McGowan. They did comical updates of standards like “Mershkin Dirkin” and “All Around My Hat,” but also strikingly original songs like “Don’t Wanna Go to Bed,” “Cash for Gold,” and “Yer Drunk Again / Polka Diablo.” And who else would dare to entitle a live album “Wankin’ Out West”?

Richard Thompson

Whether with his ex-wife Linda Thompson, Fairport Convention, or solo, Richard Thompson seems unstoppable, putting out album after album of memorable lyrics backed by equally memorable guitar work. I can’t begin to list the number of classic songs he wrote, but they include, “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” “I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight,” “Pharaoh,” “When I Get to the Border,” and others far too numerous to list. Amnesia is his most memorable album.

The Corries

The Corries were Roy Williamson and Ronnie Browne. Starting in the mid-1960s, The Corries showed a new generation that folk music didn’t have to be stiff and boring. For many people, especially in The Society for Creative Anachronism, they were the first introduction to Scottish standards like “Johnny Cope” and “PrestonPans.” In-between such set pieces, they were also known to write parodies of Top 40 favorites. Ronnie Browne also wrote “Flower of Scotland,” which many people believe should be Scotland’s national anthem.

Maddy Prior

Best-known for her work with Steeleye Span, Prior is one of England’s leading folk singers, writing and performing modern songs and even reviving ballads and hymns from the eighteen century, as well as medieval religious ballads. Her original compositions include “The Sovereign Prince,” which compares Elizabeth I to jet-setting modern young women, “Commit the Crime,” “After the Death” and countless others. The Momento retrospective is probably the best sampling of her range, although her Silly Sisters albums with June Tabor are also worth tracking down.

Michelle Shocked

Michelle Shocked was introduced as a naif singer with The Texas Campfire Tapes. Then, shortly after her third album, she disappeared in a decade-long struggle to gain control of her own recordings. Recently, however, she has re-emerged, in control of her own music, releasing it the way she always wanted it to be heard, and proving herself as versatile, sly, and politically engaged as ever. Her best-known song is “Anchorage,” which was a minor hit, but almost anything she does is worth listening to. In one of her more recent songs, “I Think We Should See Other People,” she likens her relationship to the United States to that of a woman with an abusive husband. Short Sharp Shocked, Captain Swing, and her most recent album, Soul of My Soul, are among her most memorable albums.

Garnet Rogers

The younger brother of the better-known Stan Rogers (see below), in the years since his brother’s death, Garnet Rogers has carved out his own niche as a singer-songwriter. Although self-described as a Hulk Hogan lookalike, Rogers is known for intelligent, often heart-wrenching songs like “The Beauty Game,” “Small Victory,” “Frankie and Johnny,”and “Sleeping Buffalo,” many of which are chunks of life reminiscent of his brother’s best work without being in any way derivative. Unfortunately, none of his albums capture his on-stage banter, but Summer Lightning and Night Drive are good places to start.

Steeleye Span

Someone once compared Steeleye Span to a bus that people are constantly getting on and off. But whichever of its half dozen incarnations you happen across, it’s worth hearing – especially if Maddy Prior happens to be with them. Years ago, Steeleye Span showed that traditional songs were compatible with modern pop with songs like “Thomas the Rhymer,” and, if recent versions of the band are less well-known, they are equally worth listening to. You can start anywhere, but Live at Last and Storm Force Ten are typical of the group’s early days, while The Journey is a capsule history.

June Tabor

Nobody can compress a sense of suppressed melancholy and anger into a song like June Tabor. Now she is in her sixties, she has lost some of the range you can hear on the early Airs and Graces, but her ability to put across a song is stronger than ever on Ragged Kingdom, her newly-released collaboration with Oysterband. Listening to her, you get a sense of someone who has suffered emotionally and emerged stronger from the ordeal, leaving an undefinable sense of sadness and anger. Tabor doesn’t write her own material, but shows her exquisite taste in such pieces as “The King of Rome,” a song about a racing pigeon; “Aqaba,” which concerns the last moments of Lawrence of Arabia, and “Hard Love,” a love song about not expressing what you are feeling. Tabor isn’t always easy to listen to, but she’s always unforgettable. “Aqaba” and “Angel Tiger” are two of her strongest albums.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

Ray Wylie Hubbard is best-known as a Country and Western outlaw, due mainly to his early song, “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers.” The fact is, he is considerably more complex, mixing rock, the blues, and country into something strikingly unique. Who else would do a song like “Stolen Horses” about reincarnation and horse-stealing? Or a Southern Gothic like “This River Runs Red”? His other songs include slices of life like “Dallas After Midnight” and “Mississippi Flush.” Some of his most complex work was produced by Gurf Morlix, including the albums Growl and Eternal and Lowdown.

The Pogues

This is as close I get to popular music. The Pogues are Irish folk gone punk, with dozens of original songs, ranging from the upbeat “The Sick Bed of Cuchulain” to the surprisingly sentimental “A Rainy Night in Soho.” Much of their magic was due to the song-writing genius of Shane McGowan, but, sadly, his lapse into incoherence on stage also spelled the end of the group as a creative force; these days, they tour, but reocrd nothing new. Red Roses for Me, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and If I Should Fall from Grace with God are among their standout albums.

Stan Rogers

Frequently considered the greatest of Canadian folk singers, Stan Rogers became an instant legend when he died prematurely in a plane crash, apparently while trying to help other passengers. His songs are slices of Canadian life, explored region by region, boomed out in his strong baritone and – thanks largely to his brother Garnet – wonderfully arranged. His “Northwest Passage” is almost an unofficial Canadian anthem, while his “Barrett’s Privateers” is believed by many to be traditional. “Live in Halifax” gives a sense of what his concerts were like, while some of his best work can be found on From Fresh Water, Northwest Passage, and Fogarty’s Cove.

Utah Phillips

If you are interested in labor history as expressed through songs, you don’t need to look any further than Utah Phillips. Without him, songs like “We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years” and “Where the Fraser River Flows” would be all but lost. His own songs, like “All Used Up,” “Eddy’s Song,” and “Enola Gay” are equally powerful. A strong voice in telling the forgotten labor history of North America, Phillips was also an unparalleled story-teller, as collections like The Moscow Hold and The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, his collaboration with Ani DiFranco, clearly show. The four CD collection, Starlight on the Rails is the perfect place to become acquainted with his work.

Leon Rosselson

Imagine Flanders and Swan with leftist political beliefs, and you have a dim idea of what Leon Rosselson is like. With anti-monarchist songs like “On Her Silver Jublilee” and the anti-Christian “Standup for Judas,” Rosselson constantly expressed views that were far from mainstream, attacking hypocrisy with comic exaggeration and a strong sense of the ridiculous. Songs of his like “That’s Not the Way It’s Got to Be” and “The World Turned Upside Down” have become activist anthems (in fact, you can hear them being sung by the Occupy supporters). Much of his best work was done with Roy Bailey, and can be found on his just-released retrospective, The World Turned Upside Down.


Originally a dance band, Oysterband are known today for their consummate live performances and strong song-writing abilities. Their sensibility is definitely left wing, but their music comes first. Having recently celebrated their thirtieth anniversary together, Oysterband has over thirty albums to their credit, ranging from the hard rock sound of The Shouting Edge of Life to the acoustic sound of Deep Dark Ocean. Their collaborations with June Tabor, Freedom and Rain and Ragged Kingdom, are memorable as collaborations that are more than the sum of their extraordinary parts.

If I expanded this group to thirty, I could include many other artists to whom I frequently listen – to name a few, Attila the Stockbroker, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Pete Morton, Kirsty MacColl, Lorenna McKennitt, Sileas, and Tommy Sands.

But the fifteen I mention here are the ones I return to most often. Over the years, they have relaxed and sustained me, relaxed and entertained and moved me. Without them I wouldn’t be who I was, and, looking at them, you can get a sense of exactly who I am, should you happen to care.

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As a general rule, I never buy Northwest Coast Art depicting butterflies. But when I was in Terrace last April, I made an exception for Nigel Fox’s “Butterflies #3.”

The reason for my rule is that butterflies (and hummingbirds, for that matter) are among the most popular designs for tourist pieces. You rarely see them depicted in more serious artistic works. I believe that there used to be a Butterfly family crest among the Haida, and there are still Hummingbird crests among several of the northern First Nations, but today, these designs are often trite and blatantly designed to appeal to tourists. Often, they show a degree of cuteness unlike any other designs.

I’ve joked that these designs are the Hello Kitty of Northwest Coast Art. But the northern First Nations, as I understand things, are even more scathing: satirically, they call butterflies and hummingbirds the white people’s crests.

However, Nigel Fox, a student now in his second year at the Freda Diesing School, has a different take on butterflies. In his blog, he writes about “Butterflies #3,” the third in a series of paintings featuring butterflies, “The piece is about teamwork and is part of a series that I am exploring on the theme of respect, especially among peers, even among “outsiders” or butterflies. Within many northwest coast native cultures, there are crests that are usually animals, that represent families or bloodlines. The butterfly crest is reserved for people who are not part of a nation by blood.”

Fox goes on to explain that his work is about harmony and teamwork.

I’m not sure if he is missing the satiric intent, but it is hard to argue with his results. Fox has a separate career as a painter mostly in the Canadian Impressionist style, and in his butterfly studies, he has combined traditional designs with patterns inspired by the surrealism of M. C. Escher.

Like Escher’s work, “Butterflies #3” has a constant shifting of figure and ground. At the same time, the shape of the butterflies’ wings, with their ovoids and elongated T-shapes continually suggest other shapes, such as the beaks of ravens. By combining his interests in mainstream and Northwest Coast Art, Fox has created a series of paintings unlike anything anyone else is doing, and I look forward to seeing how his work matures in the next few years.

Meanwhile, his butterfly series is a promising start.

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Today is Ada Lovelace Day, when the tradition is to blog about a woman you admire in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. I can think of dozens of women who are friends or acquaintances I could write about, but the first subject that comes to mind is Irene Pepperberg, who has quietly revolutionized the field of animal cognition with the help of her parrot colleagues Alex, Griffin, and Arthur (Wart).

Pepperberg and Alex especially are known to thousands from their public appearances. However, I sometimes wonder if many people in the audience appreciate that what they are seeing is not just an African Gray who has learned to respond on cues, but living proof that parrots’ intelligence overlaps with the lower edges of human intelligence. With the ability to use concepts such as difference, greater than, and absence, Pepperberg’s test subjects show the general intelligence of a two year old human child, and, in some cases, of a six year old. This discovery is a complete reversal of the traditional beliefs about avian intelligence – after all, “to parrot” is used as a synonym for “to repeat mindlessly.”

Pepperberg’s proof of avian intelligence is exciting, although to parrot owners, she is only repeating what they have long maintained. However, from a scientific viewpoint, Pepperberg’s proof of avian intelligence is the least of her accomplishments.

When Pepperberg began her studies over two decades ago, animal cognition had been thoroughly discredited by a long series of studies teaching chimpanzees and gorillas to communicate – usually through some form of sign language. These studies produced many touching anecdotes about the intelligence of the primates involved, but they were rightly criticized for poor experimental design and researcher bias. By the time Pepperberg began her first studies with Alex, it took a brave person to even approach the entire subject.

However, Pepperberg’s experimental design eventually gave the entire field of animal cognition greater respectability. As detailed in The Alex Studies, Pepperberg took special care to design studies that reduced the chance of unconscious cuing and was able to duplicate results with different researchers and even strangers. Just as importantly, the tasks that parrots have to perform in her studies are more complex than those solved by the earlier chimpanzees and gorillas, which reduced the possibility that her results were due to chance. As the number of her studies increased, gradually no one who read her work could deny her results.

An especially interesting part of Pepperberg’s designs is the Model-Rival learning method she developed. Unlike the usual stimulus-response model that is usually used to teach all sorts of animals rote behavior and responses, the Model-Rival technique begins with the obvious point that learning takes place in a social setting.

In the Model-Rival technique, experiments require two researchers, one of whom takes the traditional role, and one of whom plays a fellow student. The parrots being tested see the fellow student being praised for giving correct answers, and rewarded with food or the right to play with a toy, and, wanting the same attention and rewards, are motivated to learn. This setup not only serves as a serious challenge to classic behaviorism, but may also be of use in the teaching of humans with autism and other learning disabilities, although it is still not extensively studied.

What makes this new found respectability for animal cognition especially interesting is that you only have to look at Pepperberg interacting with her test subjects on video clips to realize that she adores them as much as the soppiest pet owner. When Alex died unexpectedly four years ago, Pepperberg was devastated, and wrote a memoir called Alex and Me that is one of the most moving true stories about an animal ever written. Yet to her credit, Pepperberg has never let her personal feelings undermine the integrity of her scientific work, beyond the obvious fact that she remains deeply committed to her studies. At times, such as when Alex died, the effort to keep the professional and the personal separate must have been almost impossible for her.

As a long time companion to parrots, I find Pepperberg’s work endlessly fascinating. At one point, I seriously weighed expanding on her work in graduate school, and corresponded with her briefly. Studying parrots proved to be a road not taken, but my admiration for her courage, scientific rigor, and passion remains. Far beyond her personal reputation in the media, Pepperberg remains a scientist’s scientist.

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