Advice for a Returning Blogger

Download PDF

Shakespeare Blogging

A friend of mine returning to blogging asked for some advice on getting back into the swing of things. Here’s what I shared with her.

SEO: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

First, regarding SEO: as you may or may not know, in this last year Google rolled out two significant changes to their ranking algorithms (Panda and Penguin, respectively) that really altered how a lot of people’s pages rank in Google. The bottom line of these changes as far as bloggers is concerned is that writing for SEO is less effective now than it used to be, and if one is writing articles stuffed with keywords, or striving for a certain keyword density, that is much less effective in ranking now than it was in the past. The other thing is about backlinks:  one of the best ways to get content to rank well is to have others link to it, but for that reason Google  now has the genesis  of backlinks under very close scrutiny. Links from “link spam” and paid-for link directory sites can now torpedo your page rankings. Basically, if the backlink is not from a quality site (a real blog or other site that really has content in a related subject area), then it hurts rather than helps rankings.

What’s Your Shelf Life?

Finally, there is Google’s new evaluation of how “fresh” content is.  Posting infrequently hurts one’s site now more than it did in the past. No one knows exactly how often Google is hoping to see new content, but the consensus seems to be that posting weekly is the baseline smart effort to make; two or three times a week is probably even better, but that also depends of course on the nature of your content.

End-Run Around the Search Engines

All that said, because Google (and other search engines, like Yahoo and Bing) can and do change their algorithms frequently, it is no longer smart to be as SEO-focused as we were in the past. Rather, the alternative (better? certainly more secure from Google changes) way to drive up rankings and build audience is to:

a) create high quality, high value content, original content.
b) post (relatively) frequently
c) concentrate on getting content out into social media. People-connections are immune to Google ranking antics, and once people start to follow, Like, +1 content and so, this in turn affects how a blog ranks on the search engines.

I also think that’s just basically a sound approach to building audience and connecting with your readers. If you don’t have a Facebook author page, create one. Ditto with G+, you should at least have a personal profile as well as business page (if you’re doing business or you are the business). Note that the reports about “G+  is a ghost town” are based on engagement with public posts; however, it appears that the majority of users on G+ post privately to circles, so the cross-pollination there is much more fervent than you would think.  It is just going on behind the scenes and out of sight of web metrics, which can only access the public-facing posts.

Repeat Yourself

Find a few places in the blogosphere where you can repost an intro paragraph to your newest blog content and include a link to it. Open Salon, Reddit, forums that discuss things in the subject areas you write in, are all good candidates for this. It both builds legitimate backlinks and draws more eyeballs to your work.

What’s Your Line?

Regarding the content of your blog: stay focused. People remember a place that deals with a single topic area, or brief array of topics, and will come to it again and again to see what the author has to say in those subject areas. But dilute your message too much, and you lose the dedicated readership that would otherwise follow you weekly. Narrower is better in terms of what you intend to cover. Make your blog be about something–something specific.

Speak to Your Ideal Reader

And my final word of advice:  forget rankings and appearances and everything else. Imagine that you are talking to your one IDEAL, “like-minded other” (or potential client, if you blog in relation to a business). Give him or her a name–even tape up a picture of “that person” from net surfing, right by your monitor, and when you write–speak to him or her. Just have a conversation with this One Person who really wants to hear what you have to say because it will give them good food for thought. Then just talk to that one. This will help you stay focused (you’re not worrying about an audience), while at the same time, it will magnetize to you everyone who’s on your wavelength, because they’ll feel you are speaking just to them in your writing.

Give it a try. It can be a great technique.

Oh, last thought:  sign up for the newsletter at Yaro Starak’s blog (The Entrepreneur’s Journey).  He is one of the first hugely successful professional bloggers (emerging about a decade ago), and has marvelous insights into the process and also the business of blogging.

Good luck!  And if anything is this post helps you return to blogging, please do share the url of your blog so we know where to go read. 🙂

Five Ways to Overthrow a Kingdom in Fictional Settings – Part 1

Download PDF
Liberty leading the people - Delcroix

Liberty leading the people - Delcroix

Let’s say you have a realm, empire, dynasty, or kingdom – some kind of large-ish conglomerated polity in your story world or rpg setting.

And let’s say you want to mix things up a bit and introduce change. Maybe you want to create tumult, because civil unrest yields much fertile ground for drama and adventure. Maybe you want plot threads to yank at significant characters and their changing fortunes, and so need fortunes to, like, change in a radical manner. Maybe you just want to irk challenge established characters and introduce obstacles into their governance or power base, or take things to their extreme conclusion and turn the powers that be on their heads.

How do we go about doing this?

There are many ways to skin those cats, but in this five-part series I’ll focus on just one subset. I’m calling it “how to overthrow a kingdom,” but you might just as well call it, “how to introduce compelling, believable change in how a governance system works.” So let’s take to the barricades (like in Lés Miserables) and leap in, shall we?

Armed Conflict

Or, in the words from the movie Dragonheart (1996),

Young Einon: The peasants are revolting.
Brok: They’ve always been revolting, Prince. But now they’re rebelling.

Armed conflict is a very common approach to creating drama in fiction and games, and for that reason I mention it here as one of the ways to overthrow a kingdom. War, rebellion, and armed civil unrest are certainly some of the most frequently used angles in fictional worlds. However, unless it is extremely well motivated and set up, I wouldn’t recommend using this as the default mode of forcing change in high places (although it so often is).

War, revolution, people rising up against the established order: it’s an obvious way of making change happen, and if I may venture the observation, perhaps more “obvious” to an American audience than to many others. Our country was born from revolutionary warfare, and even today the rhetoric of uprising has a place in our political discourse. Considering our history through the 20th century and into the 21st, it could be argued that that “war as resolution or way to effect change” is central to our national psyche.1

That doesn’t mean, though, that armed conflict is always the best tool to use to force change and create dramatic tension in game or story. In fact, I think it is both an obvious – and often contrived – ploy, and from a narrative perspective, perhaps too easy to use strife in this manner. Too often we see these trite things play out: Need regime change? Have an armed incursion. Need raiders in the countryside? Have a civil war. Need the prince and heir running for his life? Have a palace coup.

Used properly, these tactics can be effective and have their place, but because they are popular and obvious, writers and game designers often look no further than this simplistic framework: “Need to overthrow a dynasty? Have a revolt.” The formula is straightforward, but it overlooks the single biggest argument against it: it doesn’t happen all that often that change at the top is actually caused by armed revolt.

It is true that when revolt or war does effect change, the event is dramatic and leaves a lasting impact on our imaginations and collective memories. From rebelling lords forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta, to East Germany being reshaped by the Soviet Union, to Moammar Kaddafi being driven from dictatorship by popular rebellion bolstered by outside interests – when one group takes to arms and forces their will upon the ruling power, it is always memorable.

Battle of Hastings, 1066 - the Bayeux Tapestry

Battle of Hastings, 1066 - the Bayeux Tapestry

Certainly wars stand out in our minds for that reason: think of the myriad small principalities and kinglets having at each other hither and yon during the Dark and Middle Ages, a common template for role-playing game design and related fantasy fiction. But simply because something is memorable does not mean it is the prevailing dynamic. Even in the contentious Middle Ages, many kingdoms fell or changed due to other, non-war-related reasons. As polities and governance systems became more complex, neighbor bashing neighbor had a lot less to do with change than other system-impacting events did.

Historically and across many cultures, these other kinds of factors more frequently cause lasting governance change and drive dynasties from power. “Want to overthrow a kingdom? Have a war” may not be the most effective way to achieve the goal, or even the most realistic. Its one advantage is that this is a tactic a disgruntled population (or fraction thereof) can take into their own hands and put into effect (and so, I would argue, particularly noteworthy and memorable to democratic imaginations). Other causes of regime change are very often out of the control of individuals – but can be all the more powerful for that reason.

Still, if you must resort to warfare or armed rebellion to overthrow a kingdom, here are three things to keep in mind when you weave this into your story or game setting:

1. Motivation

Conflict does not happen out of the blue. The clash has to be strongly motivated. What is driving individuals to risk their own deaths, or those of their loved ones? What personal or institutional forces are driving the push to war? Someone has made the decision to wage war, and others have gone along with that decision. Why?

2. Resources

Armed conflict takes money and supplies: weapons, armor, often transportation, and always food. Whether you write about insurgents supported by friendly locals or an invading Mongol horde, ask yourself where they are going to get their supplies from. The availability of such things have a direct impact on the success of the conflict, and quite often on civilians in the area as well. How does this impact your story and your world?

3. Capabilities

Armed conflict plays out on a landscape – literally, a geographical terrain – and on the “landscape” of what is technologically (or magically) possible. If we decide to conquer those people across the sea, how are we going to deal with crossing the ocean? We have both geography (ocean) and technology (ships) to contend with there, but it needs to be considered and addressed in some manner in the narrative. If magic is commonplace in a kingdom under attack, how do they incorporate it into their defenses of cities and armies? What are the constraints and the opportunities afforded by the landscapes in which the conflict will unfold? All meanings of ‘landscape’ intended here.

Bayeux Tapestry detail - ships crossing sea

Bayeux Tapestry detail - ships crossing sea

Those are perhaps the very basic starting points for creating a believable armed conflict that will be deeply enough rooted in the narrative or game setting to have legs and be sustainable for dramatic purposes. (If you have thoughts on other strategic elements needed to motivate armed conflict in fiction, please share your thoughts in the comments below!) That said, I would encourage writers and game designers to think of other – possibly more likely – ways to force change in a realm.

To that end, the next post in this series looks at one of the most pervasive, potentially earth-shaking, and yet little-used devices for toppling kingdoms: the economy.

Part Two of “Five Ways to Overthrow a Kingdom” will appear around December 19. You can get the RSS feed in your newsreader by clicking the button in the page title banner, or receive posts directly in your email by subscribing (see left side-bar for the form).

_____
1. Not to say we don’t have a pacifist mindset in this country as well; my point is simply that a nation that does not have the capacity or willingness to go to war, does not go to war. The fact that we wage war and incursions (and relatively readily, at that) speaks as much to our history and historical mindset, from Revolution through ‘rugged individualism’ and more, as it does to contemporary military or political necessities.

 

Related Posts:

TED Talks and the Patterns of War

Are We a Universe, or a Speck? – the Macrocosm Inside

Download PDF

When I was 7, my teacher Mrs Cole explained the concept of atoms to me. Sometime that week, mulling it over as I was falling asleep, I fell into a dozey state where I had this vision roll out in my mind’s eye.

I am floating in space, looking at a galaxy swirling through the void. I can see that it is made of stars and planets.1 I realize that most of those planets are teeming with life, and all those people seem so small from this perspective, but I know they loom large in their own lives, just like I do in mine.  What must be large worlds to them are not even spots I can see from here. But if I could zoom in, like with my microscope,2 I could see it all.

Then my camera-eye-view starts to pull back. The galaxy gets smaller. Other galaxies come into view. Then more, and more. I realize I’m in a stream of swirling globs of stars, the galaxies looking more and more like specks. It’s like they floating around, in motion, all  flowing somewhere. Then I realize they ARE flowing somewhere. They are cells, and I am looking at a vacuous bloodstream, as it were, in some giant body.

I came completely awake then, kind of amazed at what I’d just experienced. Without articulating the thought, that vision gave me to understand there is a macrocosm in the microcosm, and likewise the reverse.3  Not the usual fare of childish insights, I know. I realized that at the time, just as I realized I’d grasped something unusual that would alter my perspective on things just a little. (Or maybe more than a little…)

So. This brings me to this FANTABULOUS set of photos.  One is a network of neurons from a mouse brain.  The other is an image from a computer simulation by astrophysicists of how the universe evolved.

I can’t really see much difference – but then, according to my 7-year-old self, there isn’t any. That the universe looks like a neural network makes perfect sense to me. And that a neural network looks like the universe – ditto.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s just way cool.

~~~
1.  You are shocked, I’m sure, to learn that I was a geek from early on. I was already mistress of my own telescope, since my birthday a few months before the conversation with Mrs Cole.  The scope was a present from my brother Don, who promptly set it up in the driveway at night and showed me how to see the moon in it. 🙂  He always gave me presents that stretched my brain. And taught me chess when I was small, too.

2, The microscope came the year before the telescope. I spent hours looking at the cooties in dirty water with horrified fascination.  Yech.  I was much happier with the chemistry set that came when I was 8.

3. It also caused me to question what we perceive as reality, as did another vision around that same age frame. But that is a discussion for later.

 

Quick Update on Splintegrate

Download PDF
Emperor's Rus of House Adan

Emperor’s Rus of House Adàn

Sadly, I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting this blog lately. Reason is simple: only so much brain and time to go around, and Splintegrate revisions are eating most of it.

I know I haven’t revealed much about what this book contains while it’s been a work in progress. When it’s off to the editor I think I’ll finally break silence and give you some material straight from the book. Meanwhile, here are some things that are cool about it:

The book is in the final paroxysms of revision. Had some particular roadblocks with it for quite a while, and then a sudden useful epiphany or two that enabled me to move into a productive place with it. The book will be off to the editor again (final time, except for line editing) later this month.

When I have some distance from the process and some semblance of returning sanity, I’ll blog about what these helpful epiphanies were. I also want to wrangle a copy of the cover art to share–looks kinda interesting.  In lieu of that right now, I share with you as graphic the rus (symbol, logo, clan sign, and more) of the imperial house of the Sa’adani Empire. The Empire is the backdrop for my science fiction and has some particular influence on events in this story.

Along with all this SPL stuff I need to find time to bring my Sa’adani Empire wiki online. It was gutted by a spambot, and I need to restore it to an actual info delivery state. 🙁  It will help you with background material relevant to the story, and is a good foundation for some rpg and other fiction I’ll be releasing in the future.  Look for that in the first half of next year.

Book is slated right now for the Fall 2013 release schedule at Tor. By the way, if you pre-ordered at Amazon, NO the book is not canceled. I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes there with pre-order stuff (they just up and canceled older orders, apparently) — but if you place a new order (whenever they have a form up) you’ll be good to go.

If you’re on G+, I hope you’ll get in with the early bird movement and join my Sa’adani Empire community. It’d be great to have you there! I think I’ll be running a lot of my science fiction material through there as a primary channel. You can join up here.  I’ll also be on FB with this book but I think G+ allows for better actual real conversations, so my focus will be more there than FB (and also as always here at this blog.)

Questions? Meanderings? Please share in the comments!

 

Majel Barrett as Whorehouse Madam in Westworld

Download PDF
Majel Barrett as Miss Carrie in Westworld (1973)

“You fellas new in town?” – Majel Barrett as Miss Carrie to James Brolin & Richard Benjamin in Westworld (1973)

Well, here’s a tip of the hat tonight to Majel Barrett–whom I have long adored for her various works in Star Trek and other properties–and who I just now saw playing Miss Carrie, keeper of a cathouse in the 1973 sf classic, Westworld.

I’m re-watching this movie now because it is relevant to a work-in-progress novel I am poking at. As I do so, I am remembering that Westworld completely rocked my world when I first saw it. If you are unfamiliar with this movie, it was written and directed by Michael Crichton, and portrays a futuristic vacation resort where you can visit historically re-enacted periods: medieval, Roman, and the American Old West. A lot if not all of the locals are robots, though, and when things go wrong, the robots turn on the guests. Good times, right? Especially when we feature Yul Brynner in one of his most interesting roles, as the creepily unstoppable gunslinger who relentlessly stalks Richard Benjamin through Westworld and beyond.

In its way, this movie was a precursor to Terminator (unstoppable construct), Stepford Wives (who’s real and who isn’t?), A.I. (self-aware machines doing their own thing), and played a wonderful riff on our seemingly perennially deep-seated concerns about where automation and AI might take us. There is even an echo here from Crichton’s 1971 blockbuster hit Andromeda Strain, with the mention of the computer malfunctions operating like a contagious disease, and the intimation that assurances that “everything will be okay” is very, very far from the truth. In fact, people don’t know how to stop this “disease,” and the robot malfunctions come to feel both ominous and doom-ridden.

I saw this when it first came out and I have to tell you, at the time it really wowed. It was frightening and galvanizing and evocative and OH so wonderful for anyone who grew up with Bonanza and fervently wished to live in the real West back when. Very disturbing and thought-provoking movie.

It is also a treat to see a young James Brolin in one of his early iconic roles, and man, Josh did not fall far from the tree, indeed! Richard Benjamin is another story, so well known for his “sensitive guy” roles from the ’60s onwards (married to the memorable Paula Prentiss, and with his own directing credits as well.I don’t know if he is or isn’t gay or bi — there is much speculation about that in gay media sites even today – but he has always pegged my gaydar way over. When I look at him I see just a slightly straighter Freddy Mercury, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject). He is not as well remembered today as some other actors of his generation, but worth taking a look at. Especially if you are unfamiliar with Westworld, he is a convincing Everyman stuck in the “oh man I’m screwed now” role.

But back now to Majel.

So much of her work is associated with Star Trek, people don’t remember or are unaware of all the other stuff she did. From appearances on single TV episodes in various shows (from Please Don’t Eat the Daisies to Bonanza to Babylon 5), to appearances on things we now think of as classics (The Lucy Show; Leave It To Beaver) to a recurring role on the soap opera General Hospital, she showed up in a lot of unexpected places with unusual character roles. Even in the early ’70s, women’s lib notwithstanding, it was still unusual for an actress to embrace being cast as a madam. Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke (where her actual role was never explicitly stated), and Julie Christy in McCabe and Mrs Miller (a movie) were, up to that point, about the only women one had ever seen in such a role in a significant feature film or popular tv show. We all knew (and know) that madams existed but they didn’t, shall we say, get much air time, whether in tv or film.

In any case, her appearance here is a a surprise, not only because it is another “hey! that’s Majel Barrett!” moment, but because of the nature of the role. At one point she stands at the bar, blithely guzzling straight out of a bottle of whiskey. A bold statement, if there ever was one, for the brassy woman in cinema, and I can’t think of anyone better to carry it off, even if it just amounts to a cameo appearance.

So here I offer a very belated “you go, girl!”.  Even if, in this movie, she is a robot. 😉

Westworld. Check it out if you can. It’s interesting sci-fi. And did I mention? Majel’s in it.

 

 

 

“Midwife” and Marvelous Miranda Hart

Download PDF
call the midwife

Nurse-midwives cycling through East End of London in “Call the Midwife.”

I’m a big Mad Men fan and love accurate representations of the mid-20th century. (And how funny we can call that “period drama” now. Wasn’t it just yesterday…?)   So when I heard of this Brit show “Call the Midwife” set in the East End of London in the 1950s, my curiosity was piqued. As it happens, Midwife opens in 1957, and since I was 6 months old at the start of that year, I admit that I have always been curious what life around me must have looked like through adult eyes of that era.  I thought I’d enjoy this bit of vicarious time travel,  even if it meant a jaunt across the pond to a social setting and occupation I had never really given any thought to.

For those who have missed discovering this gem, it is another one of those very-well done award-winning TV shows in Britain that aired in early 2012, had a Christmas special, and is coming back later this year for eight more episodes.  It is based on  the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a public health nurse-midwife with the NHS who served people in the East End of London in the late 1950s. So I hunted down the DVDs and got caught up on this show, and broadened my perspective on a few things along the way.

A Glimpse Into a (for Americans) Mostly Forgotten Profession

baby2Midwifery is an ancient activity, but with the professionalization of the medical industry in the 19th century this became something one needed credentials to do (or do routinely and for pay) in the industrialized west.  In America, midwives were virtually driven out of business by the start of the 20th century, but in Great Britain this became the purview of nursing professionals.  In the 20th century their  tradition of nurse-midwifery had a standard of care that was so good, in fact, that British nurse-midwives were brought over to Kentucky’s Frontier Nursing Service to train the first American professionals in this field in 1929.[1]

It is no surprise, then, that in the 1950s, with the institution of the National Health Service, Britain turned to her corps of nurse-midwives and deployed them where there was great need: in the low-income urban areas desperate for maternity care.  They played a vital role in maternity care and community outreach at a time when the post-war baby boom was affecting England’s population in the same way it was America’s.

The East End Docklands Come Alive

Although I know this historical context, there is nothing remotely dry or “historical”-feeling about this show.  From Vanessa Redgrave’s wonderful voice-over intros to the street life to the young midwives living with idiosyncratic nuns at Nonnatus House, Midwife feels like being there.  The stories are heartwarming and sometimes tear-jerking, but not because they are crafted for manipulation’s sake: they are, rather, real life stories (or based on same) from Jennifer Worth’s own experiences. They reflect  the odyssey of that initially naive young nurse’s growth just as much as they do the events in her world. The voice-over intros and end pieces, with their poetic and thought-provoking observations, are the perfect bookends for the very human stories that unfold in the episodes. They follow events centered around Nonnatus House (a pseudonym) in the Docklands of London.

Chummy

Miranda Hart as Chummy

And there, lumbering through the doors of Nonnatus House, I first met Nurse Camilla Fortesque-Cholmeley-Browne.  Nurse Browne as Worth recalls her was 6’2″ tall, “with shoulders like a front row forward and size eleven feet.” She was dreadfully near-sighted, with thick steel-rimmed glasses, and a plummy, posh accent, yet “everything about her was soft and sweet. Despite her appearance, there was nothing butch about her. She had the nature of a gentle, artless young girl, diffident and shy. She was also pathetically eager to be liked.”   She is “Chummy” to her friends, for, as her father told her, “long dogs need short names.”  And so Chummy becomes part of Nonnatus House and the midwives there–and in a cast with many remarkable characters, this one played by Miranda Hart absolutely steals the show.

There is so much that is odd about Chummy, that it would be too easy to play her too mannish or too klutzy or over the top in some manner. But tall and imposing Miranda, a rising star in the world of British comedians, is herself 6’1″ and, it turns out, has the perfect demeanor to carry the role of Chummy just as she must have been in 1957.  That’s not just my imagination, either:  it turns out that Jennifer Worth saw Hart’s work long before her memoirs were filmed, and thought ungainly Miranda would be perfect for the part of Chummy.  Miranda agreed to play the role if the books were ever filmed.

Worth passed away in May 2011 (the series began broadcasting in January 2012), but in addition to the rest of her touching stories, her vision of Chummy lives on in Hart’s marvelous representation of this character.  Hart’s character is sincere and earnest, practical and dedicated.  Both she and we know she is a misfit, but her earnest dedication carries her through so many pitfalls even while her vulnerability creates very touching moments in the drama.

chummy climbs into pig sty

Chummy climbs into the pig sty to help deliver piglets.

So much is conveyed in her restrained performance because of how Chummy chooses to see the world and be in it, and how Hart effortlessly embodies this.  Dressed in a fine dress–and such a miracle  to find the right thing to fit her huge frame in the first place!–she is on her way to meet her fiancé’s parents, but when the household’s pig starts to give birth and has a difficult labor, Chummy is in the sty, dress be damned, to help out the struggling mother.  For Chummy sees the mother pig as no less deserving of her skilled aid than a human mother would be, and when it comes to muscling around a large sow, well–Chummy’s the girl for the job.  From mowing down her future husband with a bicycle on their first meeting, to her first nerve-wracked but flawless delivery of a breech baby, to her pig delivery in lieu of meet-the-parents:  Chummy is a character to fall in love with.  It is not only in how the character is written, but  how she is portrayed.

Who, who, WHO is this marvelous actress playing Camilla Fortesque-Cholmeley-Browne, I wondered? I’d never heard of her before, but now I had to learn more about this large, awkward, poignant, wonderful performer Miranda Hart.

Miranda Hart the Comedian

I did the expeditious thing, and rather than read a lot about Miranda and her work, I simply watched it instead. She’s had two seasons worth of her comedy show Miranda on the BBC, written by herself, and I figured that would give me a good idea about what her comedy was about.

Miranda Hart in Xmas hat

Miranda Hart filling us in on her family’s plans for Christmas.

At first I was kind of scratching my head. The humor is not exactly American in style (d’oh), and there is a certain amount of slapstick pratfalls that I don’t normally care for. But the more I watched, the more it grew on me. By the third show I was finding some of her stuff laugh-out-loud funny. I’ve found myself compelled to explain galloping to my sister, and looking like a fool doing it, in a feeble effort to convey some of the unique Miranda-ness of her humor. (Hart contends that everyone should gallop, even adults, maybe especially to and from work. I’m not sure I can disagree with that.)

The child’s play-gallop/prance-as-if-you-were-a-horse becomes a schtick that makes perfect sense in Miranda’s world: it is especially handy when leaving a public place where you have just made a fool of yourself. Which may have happened because you squat down in a gorilla-like hunch to talk to short people, or find yourself compelled to sample food off the forks of strangers in a restaurant or–one of Hart’s fortés–have burst into uncontrollable song after telling elaborate lies simply because you are nervous.  Always a graceful way to exit the conversation, galloping. Unless you are on the floor because you just tripped over the coat rack.

Well, even if you aren’t doing these things, Miranda certainly is; these vagaries are not uncommon for Queen Kong, as a boarding school friend calls her. The thing is, after watching her for a while, none of this seems contrived so much as it is just an extension of understandable nervous bumbling.  OK, perhaps a bit of a stretch, but still, you see how one could get there from here. Sadly. And amusingly, at the same time.

I am especially taken with her propensity to break the fourth wall. She starts her shows with a ‘hearty hello to you!’ or similar robust greeting, and then spends a moment catching up–just you and her. Confidential chat, you know? And then, during particularly awkward moments in her ensuing adventures, she will turn to you and give you a knowing look, or a “what the heck’s he on about?” expression, or, my favorite, mouth the word “help!” so only you can lip-read it.

You are part of Miranda’s world. You are not just the silent and unseen observer, but rather a confidant she turns to in the midst of the ridiculous situations she is getting herself into.  Tall and every bit as awkward as Chummy, Miranda seems equally to be a misfit, and to speak to the misfit in all of us.

Her humor might be an acquired taste, but I think my favorite comedian right now is in the U.K.

is it just me book coverMiranda’s show and acting have been nominated for many awards. Among other distinctions, in 2012 she won Best TV Comedy Actress at the British Comedy Awards, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Chummy for the British Academy Television Awards. She has a book out full of great humorous observations on the awkwardness of life, called Is It Just Me?  Hart is touring her comedy act in 2014 in various UK venues, and later in 2013 will be back on the air as Chummy Browne in Season 2 of Call the Midwife.

_____

1 For more on this interesting bit of history see this about nurse-midwifery in the U.S.

Related Articles

Great interview with Miranda Hart by the Telegraph

Commentary on Hart comedy at The Guardian

Call the Midwife Sparks Surge in Student Applications

 

Miranda Hart still struggling with that 'actua...

Miranda Hart still struggling with that ‘actually being funny’ thing even with a red nose (Photo credit: timdifford)

 

Continuum: simple plot twist, complex moral dilemmas

Download PDF
Rachel Nichols as Kira Cameron

Rachel Nichols as Kira Cameron

I love Continuum, the Canadian science fiction production that tells the story of Kira Cameron, a Protector (cop) from 2077 stranded in our present time.  Time travel theme? Yeah, I’m all over that.

They recently gave the plot a twist that I think is simple but provocative. I’ll be talking about that in this post, but if you haven’t seen the show yet and plan to, be forewarned that there are SPOILERS from here on out after the cut.

.

.

.

Kira Cameron, played by Rachel Nichols, is sent back through time to our present era when terrorists escaped execution through time travel, and she got swept along for the ride.  As she says in her voice-over intro to the show, if things change too much in the present, she doesn’t know what future she’ll get back to. And that would be a tragedy, because she’s a young mother with a son she misses terribly, and a happy marriage, and now she is separated from those people and her entire life by 65 long years.

But though we see how much she was loving her life, we can’t help but be dubious about the future-world she calls home. The future that we see depicted creates a certain amount of cognitive dissonance and hence emotional tension. Because Kira is framed as the protagonist and is a sympathetic character, we’re inclined to like her. She is clearly one of the “good guys,” (or at least thinks of herself that way), working to fight crime and battle terrorists that threaten the peaceful urban masses. Then we learn that what those terrorists are fighting are the Corporations that run this future world. Elected government has long since vanished. Economic hegemony is the power politics of the day, and corporations and their power elites rule it all.

So, although Kira and her fellow peace-keepers are styled “Protectors”, you can’t help but notice that what they are doing by default is protecting corporate interests.  This is a society of haves and have-nots: the well-to-do living in protected enclaves, the disenfranchised  marginalized and living literally on the fringes of society, struggling to survive in a setting rife with crime. Their actions are criminalized while those of the elites have a blind eye turned to them.

The modern cautionary note is plain: It is what we could be, if you took our present-day Citizens United political and corporate dysfunctions to their extreme. It is not amiss to note that the seeds of that dystopia are already in place; in fact, this is central to the Continuum premise, for the “terrorists” want to overthrow the corporations that govern everything, and plan to do so by gaining temporal power in the past (our present day) so they can change the future that results.

Obviously Kira can’t allow this “change the past” plot to succeed, for it will likely wipe out her future and her family, as well as everything else that is the world as she knows it. So this is the first basic conflict in the show: the clash of goals between protagonist and antagonists.

Now, along the way we also meet Alec Sadler, who is a computer genius in present time and by 2077 will become much more. He is, as a character later describes him, “Zuckerberg, Jobs, Buffet, and Gates all rolled up in one. You’re like a king.”  A king by virtue of the world-changing tech he has developed, and the economic and corporate leverage it gave him to shape the world into his vision of a capitalist empire. Sadler and his company SadTech (a little heavy-handed symbolism in that name) have essentially created the Protectors, who are hardwired into coms and info grids, and wear super-suits that enhance their abilities and include such cool tricks as being bulletproof and having a stealth mode no agent should be without.

Thing is, Sadler arranged for Kira to be on the prison detail in the room affected by the time-travel device during the terrorists’ escape. In essence, he planned for her to be sent back into the past. And along the way he embedded a message to his past self in her tech, which teenage genius-Alec eventually discovers.

And herewith comes the twist: Old Alec tells his younger self that he has taken the world down the wrong path, and only he, his younger self, can prevent this dark future from happening. Now Young Alec, who has become Kira’s friend and tech guide, realizes that his decisions are shaping a future that his later self regrets. Will he comply with the request? What kind of future will he shape? If he creates something different, Kira will never be able to return home, or not to a home she recognizes. Yet if he continues to help her in her work, her goal is to stop alteration of the past so the future remains intact.

Do we want Kira to get back to her loved ones? Yes. do we want that dark future to exist? No. But this dissonance was already on the table, throughout season 1: the conflict between protagonist cop and antagonist terrorists. Now, by episode 2 of season 2, we see Alec is a major player: he did not “just happen” to create the future he did: he was creating a vision with fully mindful intention. And now he urges himself not to allow this to happen.

This simple twist–the message from future power-player to nascent power-player–adds layers of complexity to the plot and the character interactions themselves. It certainly complicates the goal/conflict formula previously established. How will it resolve? Who knows. What is clear so far is that this show is willing to treat “bad guys” as having good moral cores, and “good guys” as being on ambiguous moral grounds, and they are getting good mileage out of raising the stakes by ratcheting things up as they have in Season 2.

A scene shown in early episodes and reprised in the opening credits is that of a massive skyscraper collapsing as a result of a terrorist attack, “killing thousands of innocents.” Nothing could be more iconic and evocative of 9/11, and naturally that sets the viewer up to hate the terrorists–until we see that the corporate heartlessness and stranglehold on society is, it seems, something actually despicable and worth opposing.

What an uncomfortable place to put viewers in, mentally and emotionally. The show is challenging for this sort of reason: rich in moral ambiguity, with a choice for an “obvious” good being, perhaps, a vote for a strategic evil. And that dichotomy applies pretty much no matter what direction you are viewing your moral choices from. If you like challenging science fiction that takes quandaries beyond the ordinary ho-hum “good versus evil” trope,  this is a refreshing rain in the desert. And happily it has recently been renewed for a third season. I am hoping that, like with Fringe, the writers will have enough time to work through the various plot lines and dilemmas they have set up so there is a proper conclusion to the entire story arc–for some value of “proper,” that is.

Continuum, on SyFy Channel. This show has earned a big Five Dinosaur Stomps of Approval The Lizard Lair deems this Must-See TV for thoughtful science fiction fans.

lizard stomp5

Five Stomps of Approval: This Rocks!

World Building Tips Volume 2 on Sale Now!

Download PDF

World Building Tips Volume 2I’m pleased to announce that World Building Tips Volume 2 is now on sale. The World Building Tips series is a compilation of how-to info from the World Building Academy mailing list. Now you can get this great assortment of info in one handy reference volume. Book 2 focuses on travel, transportation, communications, and an interesting grab-bag of eclectica.  You can see the Table of Contents and preview an excerpt at the book page here

Lodging With the Locals

Download PDF

This post carries on the line of thought I first explored in “Lodgings in Fantasy Settings: Where do Adventurers Spend the Night?”

In eras and settings where inns and public traveler accommodations are not common, where does a traveler or adventurer stay for the night?

Historically, wayfarers had only two choices: they slept rough in the countryside, essentially camping whenever they needed to overnight, or they turned to the locals and asked for lodgings at a farm or village, or even a random house in a town.

What kind of response they received would depend largely on the culture and customs around guest-hosting that prevailed in an area. In Western European settings, the range of responses could vary widely: an unfriendly farmer might turn strangers away entirely, or only allow them to stay in the barn or cow byre. A self-interested host might demand some kind of payment even if for the poorest of lodgings, or a promise of labor performed (wood chopped, water carried, and so on) in exchange for the accommodation. More hospitable (and trusting) folk might allow strangers to sleep with the family in their own dwelling.

This would be more likely with one or a few travelers, and not a large party, or only when the family felt its safety was assured by the nearby presence of other villagers or townsfolk. Food might be offered, or not, depending on the resources of the family and how comfortable they were with offering hospitality to strangers. In worst-case scenarios, when there were no private parties who would offer lodgings, travelers could usually turn to religious establishments (monasteries, abbeys, and so on) and ask lodging of them. In most cases there was a religious obligation to extend hospitality at least for the night, and some religious communities made a regular business of housing pilgrims and other travelers who passed through their area.

Hospitality Cultures

In contrast to this grab-bag of reactions in the west, there are “hospitality” cultures where the kind treatment of strangers who become guests is strictly dictated by custom. A classic example is found in Middle Eastern cultures, for instance, where if a stranger asks for lodgings a host feels obligated to extend hospitality and take as good care as possible of the guest. In fact, this hospitality is usually extended even if the guest does not request it, for he will be pressed with offers to eat and refresh himself before moving on. Even the poorest of families will offer food and possibly lodgings, even when they have very little to spare for themselves, and expect nothing in return. (Reciprocally, if the host travels, he can be assured of equally hospitable reception wherever he goes.)

The hospitality custom seems more marked and prevalent in places with a history of harsh living conditions, since to turn a stranger away in such places might be tantamount to condemning them to death from the elements or marauders. There may also be a religious element in play, as in Islam where guest-hosting is a behavior expected and reflected in scripture.

Highland Hospitality - Lewis John Frederick (1804-1876)

Highland Hospitality – Lewis John Frederick (1804-1876)

The traveler’s own attitude also plays a role in what lodgings may be secured for the night. Where an unwelcome reception is expected, a wayfarer may content himself with something clandestine, like burrowing into a hay rick for the night, or sneaking into a barn without permission.

At the other end of the spectrum, a traveler may be quite assertive or even aggressive and demand hospitality which would not otherwise be forthcoming, effectively intimidating a householder into aiding them. Some travelers, desperate for food and lodging, might essentially take over a domicile and help themselves to whatever they want, possibly even displacing the family if the place is remote enough not to incite immediate retaliation from neighbors. This “You may not like it, but we’re spending the night here anyway” attitude can also come from the high-born, who feel entitled to accommodations whenever they feel the need, or from outright outlaws and ne’er-do-wells who take what they want when they want it.

Obviously there is a wide range of interaction possibilities for travelers seeking lodgings and the households they turn to for same. In hospitality cultures there is a stricter code of conduct observed between host and guest, and persons who violate it might find swift retribution visited upon them, either by the injured party or their friends and neighbors. In any setting, the action and reaction process must be gauged depending on the local situation.

Historically, however, travelers have been able to ask locals for lodgings and generally this transaction works out to everyone’s satisfaction. There are still parts of the world today where the only lodgings to be had will be with some local family, and a traveler in such places must be willing to engage in social interaction and come to terms in order to have a meal and a roof over his head for the night.

When an area sees a higher number of road travelers, eventually accommodations come into existence for the traffic that passes through. This may range from rooms advertised for rent in a private house or cottage, to public houses and taverns with lodgings in some corner of the building, to inns express-built for the purpose of housing wayfarers. As a rule of thumb, one may assume that the more specialized the establishment is, the higher the prices and the better the quality of accommodations. An inn will have a stable and servants to tend to horses and carriages, rooms ranging from common-area sleeping to high-end private suites, and a variety of food and drink for travelers. A cottager who lets a bed to travelers may or may not be able to offer care for mounts, and the fare they provide will likely be pretty much whatever the family is eating. Even in places where inns and taverns are well established, personal economics may force a wayfarer to use only the low-end services (like a bed in a cottage), if the more commercial services are financially out of reach.

The moral of this story is to consider the density of traffic, how much trade and travelers move through a region, village, or town, how hospitality-oriented a culture is, and what the real cost is to stay in public lodgings versus working out a deal with a local family. This will give you a good idea of what kinds of food and shelter a traveler may have to rely upon when on the road, and what the local “lodgings culture” is like.

Related Post:

Lodgings in Fantasy Settings: Where do Adventurers Spend the Night?

 

Social Psychology Insights from Hell’s Kitchen

Download PDF
Nedra dons blue team jacket hells kitchen e11s13

Nedra dons blue team jacket. Hell’s Kitchen S11E13

I confess I’m a fan of Hell’s Kitchen. I like the pressure-cooker Gordon Ramsay puts aspiring chefs into (such a boot-camp experience, notes this Army vet), and plus I’m a foodie, so what’s not to love. Now, catching up on episodes, just saw this interaction and it makes me do a double-take about how people perceive their situations, versus what is really going on:

Season 11, Episode 13: A chef from women’s team is chosen to go play on the men’s team (balancing competitor numbers, basically, plus altering interpersonal dynamics). (Spoilers follow.)

When the person changing sides (Nedra) is announced, the men mutter amongst themselves “Sabotage.” She’s black, she’s fat, she’s not a hottie at a glance, and perceived (apparently) to be a problem person. Chef Anthony on men’s team says to the private candid camera, “Red Team, tell me the truth: you wanted to get rid of her, and you couldn’t eliminate her, so you did the next best thing and you sent her to us.”

Which really makes one whiplash, because in fact, the Red Team (all women), had first drawn a name from a hat (equal odds for all), because all saw going to the opposing team as a leadership opportunity, so all were interested. When Ramsay discovered the person going over was on the basis of random draw, he made them go back and select someone on the basis of consensus.

Now that the women’s team knew what problematic competitor from the men’s team was still around (“I thought for sure they’d send Chef Zach home”) – no one wanted to go to the Blue (Men’s) Team — except Nedra, who still saw it as an opportunity. So, the women “sent” her because she was the only one still interested in going, while the men thought she was being sent to torpedo them.

My my my my. Just makes me shake my head about how one small social group interprets the motives of another, without really having the foggiest clue about what really went on, or how/why decisions were made as they were.

Although this event happens in an “entertainment” format (for some value of “entertainment”, in the land of Reality TV) –in fact this social psychology “connect the dots” exercise happens in all kinds of environments all the time, and to me is a cautionary note about how quick we are to impute motives to others.

Odds are we’re probably wrong. (And this is why I watch some, selective reality tv: there are a lot of small group dynamics and social insights to be had if one watches through a particular filter. Works for me, anyway.)

And now back I go to see how the personnel shift all plays out. So there you have it, my sociology snippet du jour.