There is no beauty without strangeness. Thus wrote the author of The Telltale Heart, a short story about a man who kills his housemate because he doesn’t like his eye. Edgar Allen Poe‘s short stories are still memorable today for their exquisite strangeness. Why does strangeness have such enduring appeal? You don’t learn much from “typical.” It’s not interesting. Flawed characters are memorable because we can relate to them. Strange characters stand out in a crowd of normality. As Janet Burroway points out in her latest text, Writing Fiction, “My advice, then, is to labor in the range of the peculiar. If you set out to write a typical character, you may end up with a vague or dull or windy one.”
I prefer a dash of strange, a dose of metaphor, and a strong flavor of subtext in my fiction. Writing while strange might not garner an author acclaim, but it’s a way to write unforgettable fiction. Short stories are a great venue for instant quirkiness. If you need a quick dose of inspirational strange, here are few of my favorite strange short stories:
The Pukey by Nigel Dennis–a sexualized, vomiting pet is a metaphor for television in this sci-fi classic.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girl’s Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell--how do you assimilate into a normal, human society if your parents are wolves?
The Perfect Match by Ken Liu –after a predictably pleasant date, Sal’s quirky neighbor convinces him to buck the system
Gross Anatomy by Kodi Scheer--a medical student learns more than she plans to when her cadaver follows her around and talks to her.
Quite a while a go, my daughter noticed that I had elements of witchcraft strewn about the house–particularly various crystals. She wondered if I could be a witch and alas, I wish I could be. I wish I could cast love spells and attract good fortune. I can’t.I had the crystals because I like rocks and minerals. I’m no witch. But at least I have science.
What did humanity have before science? We dwelled in superstition. The world was erratic and capricious–sometimes benevolent and other times cruel–depending on the wishes of deities. Deities selected the rulers of a nation. They brought the weather–sunny days to firestorms. They spoke to us through calamity and fortune. We did our best to understand, obey, and predict their whim and wishes. A cricket on the hearth signaled luck. In England, black cats were unlucky.
In the US, old shoes in the wall brought good luck as did lucky bones made from codfish. We had slogans such as “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” We had signs–lightning struck towers because the people within were bad, not because static charge accumulates at points. Maybe I’m glad not to have the witch’s craft. It seems so complicated.
As the Renaissance spread in Europe, a New idea took hold–that of verifiable truth. The idea that nature can be observed and understood, not just by the practitioner but by anyone else with the proper measuring tools and instruction. Secrecy and private craft was out and sharing ideas was seen as the only way to make progress.
When science struggled for respect, old women and women with birthmarks and extra nipples were witches. Witches cast low magic, earth magic or practical magic spells. An example of such might be causing milk to spoil or making someone have a “fit.” Interestingly enough, early scientists such as Isaac Newton believed in high magic, involving the planets, angels and demons, and cosmic realms such as alchemy, which involved chemistry mixed with prayer and summoning of powers by the alchemist. Sadly, all Newton got from his dabbling in alchemy was mercury poisoning from quicksilver. The Salem Witch Trials occurred during Newton’s life, although the English were starting to doubt witchcraft and the need to execute witches.
It took a while for magic to live only in the realm of fantasy. What’s the difference between fantasy and scifi? It’s magic vs verifiable truth. How does magic, the harnessing of unknowable forces, differ from science? In science there is the belief that anyone can do it–you don’t need to be The One who draws a sword from the stone or who is chosen to go to a school of magic. In science, nature makes the rules and anyone can discover them. Powers are discovered, not summoned. In science, everyone is a Muggle. Michael Faraday was a great champion of this and his ideas inspired other thinkers such as Charles Darwin who were great proponents of us all coming from the same family tree. (As opposed to leaders being from heaven and some being born better.) Science, at its heart, is the most equitable truth out there. It’s why it’s toppled dynasties, abolished slavery, and why scientists tend to write lab reports in the passive voice. It’s why, it’s so dangerous to those who believe they are innately better and are born better than others.
In my upcoming novel, Lost in Waste, the city-state of Cochtonville has evolved into the country of Cochtonia, run by businessman brothers Bert and Clarence Cochton. They rule through their wealth and capriciousness. Agricultural products are the heart of Cochtonia–and scientists are there to help the country produce more products. What’s lost in this country is that science is a way of knowing based on evidence. It’s a search for the truth. Without this quest, scientists aren’t happy and they aren’t productive. And the truth is, the citizens aren’t be happy in Cochtonia either. The nation’s ridiculous hoops for advancement in society have created a stratified society. It’s conformity and slogans impact productivity.
“Because I said so.” Didn’t you hate that as a kid? I found it so unpersuasive as evidence. Verifiable truth. No special powers. No divine leaders. Equality. These are tools science gave us to use against oppressors. So wave a wand and cast a spell if you wish. I hope it works for you. In my lab, we’ll be pushing buttons. Because all we have is the new craft of science. And as far as things go, science is much more dangerous to demons.
How did you get into writing? I always liked reading and writing
fiction as a child. In high school, a friend and I wrote comic serial novels to
entertain and possibly irritate our classmates. In college, I loved my Short
Story Writing course and then became the editor of the campus literary
magazine. When I went to chemistry graduate school, I missed fiction writing so
I applied to and got accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’ve been writing
ever since, but didn’t attempt a novel until seven years ago.
How do you find time to write while teaching? I try to stay
disciplined and write each morning and evening, even if it is just for a short
Why did you choose to write romance novels? I don’t really like
violence and prefer to write things with a satirical edge to them. Love is a
universal topic and gives plenty of opportunity for humor, frustration,
self-reflection, and a happy ending.
How does the romance novel
community react to your infusion of science into your writing? I mostly publish
with a Sci-Fi publisher now so I am not strictly in the romance genre. I am
still building my reader base and this has been slow going.
Do you bring your writing (in
some form) into your science classes? Yes. Writing requires looking at
concrete details and evidence, expressing ideas efficiently, and drawing a
conclusion based on what has happened—just like a lab report.
Do you ever teach a novel writing class? No but I would love to if there is a demand.
Has anything from Central worked its way into your books? Not
really. There is an adage in fiction writing that “only trouble is interesting.”
I enjoy my work here so I don’t find a lot of inspirational trouble. I did one
time have someone who no longer works here tell me that they found my field of
Analytical Chemistry “far too easy.” I found this arrogant and I had a villain
use the line.
Not long ago, I went to an Iowa caucus training. A caucus is first of all, a meeting. It’s not a primary. It’s a meeting run by a political party and funded by the party. It’s a meeting to select the party’s nominee for election and to work on the party’s goals and principles–the platform. It’s an expensive undertaking. Here is information about the caucus. Here is the platform of one party and of the other.
A caucus will have an attendance of 5-500 people, depending on where you live in the state. It is a place to register people to your party, register people to vote, and to elect delegates for candidates running for president. Each county has a specific number of delegates based on how many people voted in the last 2 elections and how many candidates from that party received votes. A caucus is paid for by the party but works with the elected official–the auditor–to get this information. There are no official candidates at this point, although many have been vying for the nomination. A caucus can elect “undecided.” However, based on your number of delegates, only so many can move forward as “viable.” A candidate may have supporters, but not enough to win a delegate. If this happens, the supporters have the chance to move to their second choice candidate. As you can imagine, there’s math involved and some rounding.
Since there were allegations of fraud in the last caucus–which turned out to be a Russian hoax–the caucus will be less meeting- like next year. Instead of counting people in preference groups and having people win over delegates, we need to collect cards. And people must sign the cards and declare who they are for early in the process. This is a departure for folks like me, who show up not knowing who they will be for and hoping to discuss things at a meeting. I for one feel that the interference in the past election, starting with the caucuses, was a serious threat. There’s a difference between free speech and perpetuating fraud.
In the past, the chair counted the people in each preference group and the results were verified with name and signature by a delegate for each candidate. The card adds an extra layer. Plus, I have to save the cards in case there is an audit. Here’s a look at the card:
I volunteered to be a temporary chair for the next caucus. My goal will be to sort people into their candidate preference groups, elect delegates to the county convention (they represent their candidate preference), adopt platform resolutions, and elect people to leadership roles. I had to have a training and will need to pass a quiz.
The Iowa caucus will be on Feb. 3, 2020. It’s the first test of a candidate’s appeal and organization. The locations will be announced, but any entity supported by state taxes in any way must permit their location to be used at no charge.
Seeking asylum has a long history. As part of the Geneva convention, people are allowed to avail a country for protection if they are being persecuted for race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion.
“An asylum-seeker is a person who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who hasn’t yet been legally recognized as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim. Seeking asylum is a human right. This means everyone should be allowed to enter another country to seek asylum.” (source here)
“A refugee is a person who has fled their own country because they are at risk of serious human rights violations and persecution there. The risks to their safety and life were so great that they felt they had no choice but to leave and seek safety outside their country because their own government cannot or will not protect them from those dangers. Refugees have a right to international protection.” (source here)
By contrast, a migrant might leave their country “because they want to work, study or join family, for example. Others feel they must leave because of poverty, political unrest, gang violence, natural disasters or other serious circumstances that exist there.” (source here)
According to the Geneva Convention, at the moment of urgency, cooperating countries have to let asylum seekers and refugees into their country. Later, they go though a proceeding that determines if they get asylum. This can be risky because if they get sent back, they could be killed by the people they are fleeing. Asylum seekers need to present a convincing case that they were in danger in their country and had no way to find protection. They are granted temporary asylum and it is up to the government of the country where they seek asylum if they should be detained, locked up.
In the US, Trump etc has decided that ALL asylum seekers and migrants be detained. (At our expense. $$$$$$$$$$) The kids of asylum seekers and migrants are not detained so they are taken from their parents and getting sent to camps. That’s the logic. But why detain everyone? This hasn’t been done before. There are no clear guidelines for caring for the children. Some have even been put up for adoption, leading to accusations of kidnapping!
In the current system in the US, honest people fleeing persecution and violence in Latin America can be detained with criminals. They can be detained for years, by the way, even if they are innocent. This is not the smartest, cheapest, or kindest policy. It lowers the moral standing of the US in the world because no other country separates parents and kids. (Although India won’t let anyone in since they never signed the Geneva convention.)
Sadly, women fleeing domestic violence or genital mutilation are not covered by the convention. People fleeing natural disaster, migrants, have the same rights as asylum seeking but in the US, those from the Bahamas are being turned away.
Right now, there are over 25 million refugees in the world. Here in the US, most asylum seekers are from China, followed by El Salvador.
In the US, asylum seekers could once refer to the highlighted document. However, it is no long available.
The Geneva Convention was created in 1951, as stories of Jewish people fleeing Nazis being turned away and later executed became known. The United States was responsible for turning many away, including a ship load on a vessel known as the St. Louis. The US signed the Geneva Convention and codified the principles in 1980. It is considered to be international law. It’s not illegal to seek asylum but, egged on by cruel policies, some seekers are called criminals. This is a violation of international law and inspires hatred and demonization across the globe.
BTW, if your state has capital punishment, as Iowa is considering, and as the US has added, you can be a refuge to to another countries such as France. Let’s hope the world gets a little more loving or there could be no place to flee to. We also need to recognize domestic violence as violence.
Recently, my family made a trip to Detroit with 9 kids in tow. We only had two days to spend. Here are some of the things we did:
We were on a tight budget for time and had lots of squirmy little ones, so we didn’t do any fancy dining, even though Detroit has a vibrant & competitive food scene. We ordered delivery of Detroit style pizza and took in the food trucks at Eastern Market. In addition to good food and local items (need a t-shirt?), Eastern Market is known for its murals . Art in Detroit is a combination of quirky and hopeful. Seriously, click that link.
We decided to take the Coney Dog Challenge. Despite the name, Detroit, not Coney Island, invented the coney dog (chili sauce, onions, and mustard). Two famous coney dog spots are right next to each other downtown on Lafayette Boulevard. After trying both hot dogs, what was our verdict? It was mixed. Some liked American because the dogs have a great snap to them and a delightful casing, while others found the sauce of Lafayette more savory. American has a little more room to sit and eat.
We stopped by Sanders, in the wealthy suburb of Grosse Pointe, for ice cream, Vernors, and chocolate.
Campus Martius is Detroit’s downtown hub of activity and is the aptly marked origion of the city. The summer fun was a beach with sand and toys, plus an outdoor bar which a couple harried parents appreciated. We wandered to the riverfront, past more eye caching art work. It was a beautiful moment in The D.
Shown above are the Civil War Memorial–Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (1872)
KAWS statue, Waiting (2018)
Spirit of Detroit (1958)
Monument to Boxer and Civil Rights Icon Joe Lewis (1986)
Belle Isle is the oldest aquarium and botanical garden in the United States. It holds the world’s most complete collection of gar fish. It was a quick and enjoyable visit. The kids not only marveled at the aquatic life, they lingered over the plants, everything from cactuses to Dumb Cane to Banana Trees.
The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborne is the opposite of the Belle Isle attractions. It contains everything made by humans to help them travel plus an extenive array of historical furnature and historical items, including the Rosa Parks bus. We need to go back and take in the rest of this sprawing attraction.
Detroit is a center for art and social change. I hope it continues to thrive and keep its hopeful, quirky nature. The kids loved it, had discussions about art and Civil Rights, and one who is a city girl kept remarking about the tell buildings, even though she sees tall buildings in her city. Pure Detroit gives some great tours if you want to explore some of the impressive Detroit buildings.
Uranium is a dense heavy metal that decays–meaning it’s radioactive and gives off particles and energy and transforms into a slightly lighter metal, thorium, which is also radioactive. It emits an alpha particle, the Mac truck of subatomic particles, which is also a helium nucleus. This is where earthly helium comes from! All forms of uranium are radioactive..but not the helium it emits. Don’t worry, your party balloons are safe. Uranium is unstable and thus radioactive. The word radioactive was coined by the Curies in 1898, with radio being related to ray as in a ray of light Many radioactive elements and nuclear reactions cause their surrounding to glow due to their energy. It’s slowly radioactive with all isotopes having long half-lives. It can be found in deposits across the globe.
Uranium can be made into a source of power when it undergoes fission. During fission, the core of the atom (the nucleus) is hit with a neutron and split into smaller pieces and new lighter elements are made. The lighter elements are more stable and the energy needed to hold the large unstable uranium together is released. The process is shown in the figure below. You can see that more neutrons fly out and if enough atoms of the right isotope of uranium are nearby, they split other uranium atoms. A chain reaction ensues and this keeps the energy release going. If the reaction is fast enough, a bomb is created.
Here’s the catch, not all forms of uranium undergo fission. Only the isotope with 92 protons and 143 neutrons in the nucleus, uranium 235 or U-235, is unstable enough to be broken in this fashion. And it’s not very plentiful. Only 0.7% of naturally occurring uranium is this isotope. And to allow for the chain reaction to occur, you need to concentrate this form of the metal. This is needed for both weapons grade and power reactor uranium but weapons grade uranium needs more concentration aka enrichment. This is not easy. Why does it take so much work? Chemical reactions occur with the outside of the atom–the electron cloud. This is an easy way to separate chemicals–by their different reactivities due to different electron clouds surrounding them.
A while ago, I came across a message from Highlights for Children.
A kids’ magazine featuring mild rebukes of doing things such as sticking your dirty fingers in an olive jar (that would be you, Goofus) instead of using a fork (yay Gallant–you always do the right thing), had a serious statement on Twitter about what I am going to call state sponsored child abuse.
Give this magazine credit for knowing the science of hardship, neglect, and stress on kids. Kids and baby mammals in general are not resilent as some claim. They are sensitive to stress. When raised in situations where resources are lacking females suffer from lack of brain development, leading to attention problems. In other words, things like poverty and war can harm the brain of a young female, making her less able to make good decisions and be less resilent in the future. Being raised by a stressed mom can create many problems for the offspring: depression, anxiety, attention problems and PTSD later in life. Good nutrition and dependable dads can help nuture brain development and ensure proper social skills. Allowing children to experience malnutrition and trauma, such as the trauma of war and poverty or even physical punishment, can affect genes, making future generations more likely to be unable to cope with stress. What helps? Anti-poverty programs including food assistance work! They protect children and familes. But due to the deep, genetic trauma of poverty and stress, we can’t expect insantaneous results. Lack of nurture becomes nature.
For those of you familiar with my Unstable States dystopian series, you’ll recall that in the nation of Cochtonia, people don’t vote and get scanned regularly with a No Regrets device. As detailed in Mixed In, this scanner was developed to allow people to check sex partners for diseases, but it quickly became used by the Vice Patrol to check them for “deviance” instead. We haven’t reached this point yet here in the US, but we do have The Real ID. (Click link for official description)
The Real ID has been in the works since 2005. “Republican Cong. F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin is to blame. In February 2005, he attached the Real ID Act to a defense appropriations bill. No one was willing to risk not supporting the troops by holding up the bill, and it became law. No hearings. No floor debate. With nary a whisper, the United States had a national ID.”
According to the government “On May 11, 2005, President Bush signed into law the “Emergency Supplemental Appropriation for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief, 2005” (H.R. 1268, P.L. 109-13), which included the “Real ID Act of 2005.” Title II of Real ID—“Improved Security for Driver’s License’ and Personal Identification Cards”—repeals the provisions of a December 2004 law (P.L. 108-458) that established a negotiated rule making process to create federal standards for driver’s licenses and instead directly imposes prescriptive federal driver’s license standards.”
It’s estimated that in 2020 millions of people will not be able to vote or will be discouraged from trying to vote due to Real IDs,
I went to get my Real ID at the DOT this week. Here’s what I had to bring with me:
You must apply in person to get a Real ID. The DOT comes to Pella two times a month and provides services from 9am-4pm. Otherwise, you have to drive to the county seat. No problem for me but if a person is not a driver, it could be.
In Pella, I waited for about 40 minutes and had to pay $10 and get a new photo taken. My Real ID will come in the mail in a week or so. I had a passport, but to get it, I had to get a new official birth certificate and pay for that (since I was born out of state in Michigan), a photo, and pay for that, and pay for the passport. How do poor people get a Real ID? I wrote Homeland Security (in charge of the Real ID rollout) and asked this question. I’ll update when I get an answer.
Here in the US, about 11% of the population has no ID of any kind. There are ministries and non-profits to help poor people get IDs, which are needed for things such as welfare and getting married. The real ID has made this a time eating and burdensome process. Is there help in Iowa? If so, I can’t find it
Some people worry that Real ID will create two tiers of people–those who have a real ID and those who don’t. It seems a little dystopian, don’t you think?
Life here on Earth has it all figured out. Plants consume carbon dioxide and water and pump out oxygen and carbohydrates. Animals consume carbohydrates and pump out carbon dioxide. It works beautifully when in balance. When out of balance, it creates spots where no life exists called Dead Zones. Dead Zone sound like something from a Stephen King novel. In reality, they are found in watersheds. The cause: lack of dissolved oxygen in the water.
When fertilizer from fields runs into the water, it causes algae to grow.
No problem, right? The algae will put oxygen in the water. It does, until it dies or until the excess algae chokes out other vegetation and kills it. Decomposition uses oxygen. The oxygen levels fall and animals die due to the lack of it, just as in the Death Zone of Mt Everest where the lack of oxygen is due to lower air pressure. Just like Everest climbers, aquatic animals try to get to areas of higher oxygen…they try to swim away and also gulp air at the surface. But they become lethargic and eventually will suffocate.
Of all crops, corn uses the most fertilizer. Therefore, its production is responsible for most of the Dead Zone. This map shows where most of the fertilizer us used in the Mississippi. Because fertilizer is mostly nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, these areas are labeled “Nitrogen Hot Spots.”
The problem is acute when fresh water from farm fields containing fertilizer washes into the Mississippi. This water streams into the Gulf of Mexico-salt water–and sits on top of it because salt water is heavier.
The Dead Zone and agricultural pollution is a huge issue for Iowa. Because of all the animal feeding operations, Iowa is number one in poop...and the excess nitrogen in the form of nitrates that comes with it. New evidence shows that this does more than cause the Gulf Dead Zone. It contributes to cancer, including thyroid cancer which is very common in Iowa, colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, and many birth defects and pre-term birth. We need more regulations of these pollutants. We need to reduce our dependence on corn and corn ethanol in Iowa. We need more regulations on animal feeding operations–many of them are owned by China. Did you know that there is more chicken shit in Iowa than people shit? None of it has to go through sewage treatment! Not a pretty picture.
Solutions will not be easy and won’t come as long as Iowans are complacent about the issue. Last year, almost none of my students had even heard of the Dead Zone. Iowans consider themselves “Iowa Nice” because they are superficially polite. But being ignorant of pollution is not very nice, is it?
Sadly, all of this rain and flooding will be a disaster for water quality. Here is a great article with more information.