Just Give Me a Master Caution, OK?

DadRed’s car has too many lights. Far too many lights. I can’t tell what is “car is about to die” important and what is “Hi, I see you are driving. Would you like to use my template?” If Microsoft’s un-lamented Clippy was a car, it would appear on the dash of this vehicle.

When everything has a chime, horn, indicator, or light, the driver (or pilot) develops information overload. Like an electrical circuit, this leads to load shedding. What is important? Or what looks most important? That gets my attention. Ideally, this is the road, the mirrors, and then the speedometer and so on. In reality? whatever is orange or red and flashes catches my eye. Even if it is only a report that the speed limit on this bit of road is now 45. This is not helpful.

Apparently, car people don’t talk to airplane people. Aeronautical engineers have already learned that pilots tune out warnings that sound too often, or too early. Minor alerts should not be large, red, and flashing, or people get conditioned to ignore large, red, flashing lights. Too many similar sounding warnings causes the same problem. We ignore the honking. This leads to the (in)famous “Why didn’t you hear the Tower telling you that your landing gear was still up?”

“I couldn’t hear the radio over the warning horn, sir.” Which the pilot ignored, because it always sounded when he did this, this, and that. Since he had to do those things every time he landed, well, you know what happened.

My pickup has a master caution. Alas, it also only tells you what needs attention once, when you start the car. Thereafter the light stays on, and you might not be sure if this is “change the oil” or “gas cap is dangling” or “pull over because you have no oil and the engine is about to lock.” Give me a dedicated engine-things light, please, or a secondary things-of-pending-need light. Or just trust me that I know when to change my oil.

SIGH. Car people have not learned. The cluttered display gets ignored. DadRed’s car, at one point during a normal drive, had twelve different alerts, indicators, and other things on the main instrument panel, plus the speedometer and the gas-efficiency indicator. No tach, no oil pressure, no engine temp. You know, the important things. Toss in the secondary computer display, and gadzooks, there are too many lights.

Different Time, Different Minds

It’s hard to get a modern mind into a late medieval or even early-modern mindset. Especially for Americans (and Canadians as well, I suspect), our philosophical and cultural world is so very different from that of the late 1400s-1700 that it’s a wrench. Reading lots of documents and accounts from the time helps, a little, but those are often “official” and rather tidier than the average mental world of the run-of-the-mill soldier, sailor, traveler, or businessman. It takes work, and digging, and a deliberate effort to set aside what we know and to accept the framework of Back Then. And even so, it is an imperfect fit at best, because we lack some of the ingrained culture, the part of the iceberg deeply submerged.

I was thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One, I discovered that some of my students have had certain language patterns ingrained in them, to the point that they don’t see why using a certain term makes zero sense in the context of what they are discussing. Two, it’s the annual “Europeans are horrible murdering conquers who were incompetent as well” furor. Three, working on the Merchant books requires me to put on a different mental “costume” of sorts and to force myself into a world that often collides with my own. [As an aside, Arthur has one foot in that world, which might explain a little of why he is so draining to write as a POV character.] It is a mental world where survival comes first, where casual violence is the normal state of things, not the exception, where death is an everyday reality, where women are very important but not equals, and where life is hard and short. Tarno Halson is just over thirty. If you saw him in person, you’d think he was older because of how he moves and his outlook on life.

So when I read the accounts of people like Columbus, and Bernal Diaz, or descriptions of the Thirty Years War, the world of Ivan IV (the Terrible) as written by people of the time, it can jar and jar hard. I think something that sums up far too much of the Thirty Years War (and warfare into the modern day, outside of Europe and the Anglo-Sphere) is the statue of the soldier and the woman that is one of the plates in Geoffrey Parker’s book about the Seventeenth Century. I’m not going to describe it, other than to say that it is an amazingly well done depiction of something horrible about to happen. But someone commissioned the sculpture, and kept it, and valued it. That, right there, makes me pause and wonder about mental worlds. But I do delve into that world, because if I’m going to come anywhere close to understanding what makes people do things, and how other minds see things, I need to try. It can be entertaining, and amazing, and terrifying. Sort of like making myself think through blood-and-soil nationalism. I understand it, I can explain it, I can even write it as a point of view, but it itches and doesn’t fit.

Our world isn’t that of back then. Our rational scientific answers for “why” would sound as strange to Columbus, or Hugo Groetius, as miasma theory and the need to balance humors, or the casta system of the Hispanic colonies sounds to us. Back then, they had reasons based on observation and extrapolation that made good sense, even if they weren’t correct. Today, we do the same. Some things that were morally wrong in the early-modern world are just fine today, and things we condemn today were accepted as normal. And some things were excessive for both of us. The conquistadors were most certainly not saints. After 700 years of warfare, then crossing the Atlantic looking for riches and glory, well, saints are going to be very, very unusual. You know things had to be horrific when even Cortez wrote that what his allies did to the last Aztec defenders was appalling. So I’m not surprised that the Spanish, Portuguese, and others acted the way they did. Disappointed, perhaps, but not overwhelmed with surprise. So Charlemagne had multiple wives and official (and unofficial) lady friends. As did Charles V, at least the lady-friends part. Um, they were powerful men with lots of money (OK, Charles had some budgeting difficulties. Moving right along . . .) What do you expect? I’d hope for better, but *shrugs*

The point being, when we demonize people from the past for not having our modern sensibilities, we’re demonizing ourselves. When we elevate one group in the past as the pure, innocent victims, and make the others into horrible monsters who should have known better, we warp the story and strip the humanity from both groups. Most Native Americans/First Nations/whatever we choose to call them were not saintly, environmentally perfect Children of the Earth. They enslaved, massacred, loved, dreamed, murdered, seduced, fought, and were people. Likewise the Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, and everyone else. We are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. That’s an amazing – and humbling – inheritance. Warts and all.

The Right Knife for the Job

How many knives do I own? Not counting the dedicated kitchen knives, because those live in the kitchen, let’s just call it “probably enough for now, except when I really need one.” You know, Sharpes’ Corollary of Murphy’s Law – whenever you need a cutting blade, you can never find a cutting blade. Or the one you have will be 1) too small, 2) too large, 3) a good knife you don’t want to louse up on cardboard or other junk.

The idea percolated up after an on-line conversation about carrying or having access to a junk-knife to loan to people who are the sort who mess up tools. Or who don’t know enough to know how not to mess up tools.

Swiss Army knife – one, the checkered handle officer version. This is my every-day go to.

Two heavy-duty Spyderco clone lock-blades – gift from Sib-in-Law, one of these will go in a bag, because they are a little big to fit easily in a trouser or skirt pocket. Serrated and very sharp. Do not give to the clumsy or careless.

Truck knife – hunting-style fixed blade, because you need a knife in your vehicle.

Cutting Bean – a handy little gizmo for when you need a small cutting tool (opening boxes, cutting tape) but are not supposed to have a knife. Yes, locking open a pair of scissors can work, but this is safer for all involved.

Little Black Knife – no, not the one that goes with your evening wear. The one you never carry, officially. And hope never to need to use.

[Junk] knife – the one reserved for knife-killing jobs, because it’s a piece of [junk], was free, and never will be missed when it finally dies.

Small multi-tool – because why not.

Large multi-tool – because sometimes you do need a whatsis, even if it is not a dedicated whatsis.

Plus a few others that live in drawers, a desk shelf, and the one I’m always forgetting is in a bag. And three specialty blades, one of which is South American and silver, and that I have had for decades. Because vampires. No, seriously. That’s what I joked when I asked for it as a teen. To my surprise, Santa gave it to me.

The Importance of Hope

A repeat that reminds me of some important things just now.


When I teach the period of Soviet history between Khrushchev’s retirement and 1985 or so, I tend to sum it up as grey. Brezhnev, Andropov, their successors kept watch over a grey country where concrete was the building material of choice, where the snow turned grey in the cities, where conditions slowly grew worse as things went unrepaired or were patched and mended but not really replaced. Individuals fared better, or worse, and had their own stories with color and joy, but as a collective whole? Grey.

Why grey? I’d argue that grey is what is left when hope goes away. Continue reading

A Commercial Observation

I was in Hobby Lobby with MomRed as she looked at different weights and textures of cotton flannel for a project. I started reading the ends of the bolts of fabric. Last month, we had gone to Jo-Ann’s to buy material for a different project, and I had noticed that everything came from China, at least every single bolt of material that I looked at. Fleece, twill, calico, muslin, denim, satin, cotton, polyester, everything I found came from a textile mill in China. The thread came from the US or Pakistan or India. Buttons tended to be US or, more often, France.

Most of the fabric in Hobby Lobby that I looked at came from not-China. Pakistan, India, Taiwan, but not China. I didn’t browse the notions, because I got drafted to look through the lower shelves in the remnants rack.

I’m seeing more and more places selling things not from China. Clothing isn’t made in China as much, at least not what I’ve browsed at stores ranging from WallyWorld to Dillards (upscale department store) to Talbots and LLBean. Plastics not made in China. Paper goods not made in China. Granted, a lot of things are still made in China, but the shift is getting more and more apparent.

Part of it is economics. Vietnam, Pakistan, India, are less expensive in terms of labor and other costs. The quality is as good or better. The countries are less likely to steal the product’s design specifications and use them to undercut and drive out the patent/copyright holder.

Part of it is also growing numbers of people like me, who are wary of Chinese made goods. Sometimes it is quality, sometimes personal political beliefs, sometimes fear based on past bad experiences. After all, if the Chinese government has no qualms about poisoning its own people with contaminated water, and fosters an atmosphere where baby formula can be fortified with toxins (at least until enough people scream), and doesn’t see a problem with companies shipping pet food that kills the pets, what else does the government turn a blind eye to, or encourage? Recent news about the “forced labor” contracted to major international corporations doesn’t help, either.

I’m also seeing more Made in the USA stuff, including things that were not made at home for quite a while. I will happily buy sheets made in Portugal, wool fabric from Italy (no US maker for that weight that sells retail), shoes made in the US or Britain, and other things. I prefer not to buy from China. All else aside, and there is a lot of else, the quality control on things from China has been poor, and the fits are worse.

Of Symbols and Unicorns

I was fascinated with unicorns and dragons as a teen, mostly unicorns. But not the overly-cute, round, pastel My Little Pony style of unicorns, no. The killer Classical and medieval unicorns were more to my taste. The ones that would skewer hunting dogs, trample hunters, made lions run in fear, could kill elephants, and liked virtuous young women. Those unicorns. Like the Karkadan of Islamic/Arabic myth, but the European forest version. I’ve never thought highly of the wimpy, delicate, harmless unicorn.

Unicorns, the one-horned, hoofed, European variety, came to serve as a symbol* of purity, chastity, healing, and in some allegories, of Jesus Himself. Pure white things were pure, especially things that stayed white. If toxins were the essence of the impure and corrupt, then it made sense that only perfect purity could drive out disease and poison. Thus the market for genuine, proven unicorn horn, especially once the Renaissance and Italian politics (and possibly papal politics in two cases) led to spates of poisonings of nobles, prelates, and monarchs. The unicorn could only be “tamed” by an equally pure woman, and would kill an imposter. According to popular theology, the Son of G-d could only be carried by a “virgin unspotted,” and thus the allegory of Jesus as the unicorn, with Mary as the maiden.

Unicorns were used in other places, such as the holding up the coat of arms of England. “The Lion and the Unicorn fought for the crown . . .” The Asian version, the kirin or ki-lin or qi’len, or . . . is used as the brand for a Japanese beer. Unicorns are not, and probably have never been, confined to spiritual symbolism.

Still, I tend to look at unicorns in pop-culture** in a rather different way from most people. To me, the underlying symbolism is still there in the background. Thus, when I read, and saw examples of, a roly-poly pop-culture unicorn being used for a form of sex-ed, my first reaction was to facepalm. You see, a gingerbread person wasn’t androgynous enough for the activists, but a purple unicorn fit the bill.

The more I thought about it, though, the more angry I became. Because it inverts the symbolism, and dollars to donuts, someone knew that, and did it with malice aforethought. “Shock the ‘danes” by taking a symbol of chastity and virginity, and turn it into a tool to teach gender theory to young children. The fact that it looks like a My Little Pony™-style figure standing on two hoofs doesn’t go without observation, either. It looks cute, sort of, which fits the target market.

Pretty much every legal system and religious system reserves special condemnation for people who deliberately target kids and innocents, especially those who take advantage of innocence. That’s how I feel about taking the unicorn and using it in this way. It makes me think fondly about unleashing a karkadan or medieval unicorn on the people behind the new logo. I’d stand well back, arms folded, a beatific smile on my face as mayhem and terror ensued. It’s not nice, or kind, or especially charitable, but some things ought not be messed with. Innocent kids and unicorns are two of those things.

I still have unicorns of various kinds around, books about unicorns, a study of unicorns in art, and similar things. I will not surrender the symbol.

*I wrote an English Lit paper in college on the plant and animal symbolism in King Lear, contrasting it with the symbolism in the “Unicorn in Captivity” from the tapestry series in the Met Museum’s Cloisters Collection. I may have had a wee bit too much fun with that assignment.

**Yes, I’ve read Michael Bishop’s Unicorn Mountain. That is such a strange urban fantasy book, and in some ways so very 1980s. The ad-agency’s use of the unicorn image bugged me as well, although Bishop did a decent job using it to skewer Madison Avenue’s excesses.

Packaging: A Rant

First, they added cute slogans to the product to “empower” customers. Then someone fussed, so the slogans went away.

Next, they came up with different terms for the sizes and functions of said products. So you had to stand there and puzzle out if this is the new version of what you needed, or if that thing on the next shelf is the right one.

Then they changed the box so it is metallic technicolor. You have no way of knowing what’s inside, unless you already know what is inside.

As if that wasn’t enough, they changed how the package opens and closes, so it has a “new, convenient easy-close lid.” I turned the dumb box over and over until I realized that it now works like a Kleenex™ box instead of a standard box.

Come on, folks!

This is down with all the “zip to reclose – tear here” bags that can’t be torn, and then don’t cut evenly, and then the zip doesn’t work. Stop over engineering the container. Sheesh.

Two Countries, Divided by a Common Notation System

Two things are generally true about choirs as compared to orchestras. Orchestras don’t breathe, and choirs don’t count. Specifically, it is rare for the entire orchestra to have a lift or hesitation for a catch breath. The brass and woodwinds might, or they might just take turns grabbing oxygen. Choirs usually have musical cues written into their scores, or a piano reduction for practice, and so don’t count constantly the way most instrumentalists do. It is very unusual to see the markings for, oh, a 12 measure rest, then a time-signature change, a three measure rest, and then choir notes.

That is, unless an orchestral composer writes something with a choir in it . . .

I was reminded of that recently, when grousing about crazy key signatures with some symphony members. The composition we had performed had, at one point eight sharps. [Waits for music people to finish face-palming]. There is no such thing as a key with eight sharps, as normally written. If you need something that odd, you toss in a few accidentals (notes that are raised or lowered a half-step temporarily) or just use the key that matches the sound you want. This led to grumbling about “composers who are showing off,” and use way too many keys in their music. Key changes are not, in themselves, bad. Changing which notes are sharp or flat, oh, say, nine times in a six page church anthem for choir? Not a way to win friends from either the choir or the organist.

So . . . Some years back, the choir I sang with got the choir parts for a joint forces exercise, er, choir with orchestra, composition. The composer was not used to writing for choirs, and thus did as she would do with instrumental parts and just put in a bunch of resting time before the choral entrance. And a few key and time changes, but nothing too wild. However, there were no hints for the choir (or accompanist) as to when we came in or what our cues were.

Predictable chaos ensued the first time we rehearsed it with orchestra. After perhaps ten measures of no choir, the conductor (who is primarily a choral conductor) realized that four parts were missing and stopped the orchestra. “Come in this time,” came the order. Fifty pair of eyes glowered down from the risers, because we had neither cue nor clue. “I’m starting seven before the choral entrance.”

Right. The handful of us who had some orchestral experience started counting under our breathes. One of the others held up a hand behind the music folder and gave the folks behind a count down. Four measures. Three measures. Two measures. [Rather like the start of a Tour de France time-trial, actually]. Launch.

After the third run-through, I sorted out some cues and where they were in relation to the choral entry, and marked that on my music. It helped. But I still had to spend — a while — counting like mad.

I’m not sure some of the alti ever forgave the composer for that. We sopranos had our own beefs. (“We’re not violas – that’s LOW.”)

The Selfie and Video Problem (For certain values of problem)

I once saw a young lady come within about one inch of committing selfie-cide. It was in the Matthias Church on Buda Hill in Budapest. The church was repainted to look a bit more . . . . colorful, if the Medieval color schemes met modern paint brightness. It’s impressive, and well worth wading through tourists to see. We were up on one of the balconies around part of the nave, and this young lady had her phone on a selfie-stick, leaning waaaaaaayyyy back over the edge of the railing to get the best shot of herself against the church. Just to prove that there is a reason for stereotypes, she was East Asian. (This was before selfie-sticks became common.) I wasn’t sure what to do if she started to fall: grab her, or look away so I didn’t have to fill out a witness statement?

She ended up not falling, although it wasn’t for lack of trying. I’d already seen “tourists with cell phones behaving very badly” in other places, most noticeably the Louvre Museum. One woman in particular would shove people out of the way, take a closeup of the art, and move to the next painting. She never looked at the results, or at the art. Everything was seen through the screen on the camera. If she ended up floating face down in the Seine River, I think at least a hundred people would have provided alibis. This was when “if you don’t post a photo, you weren’t really there” was “A Thing” on social media. It did cure me of taking photos in most museums, even when photos are allowed.

Joking aside, people have died from trying to get the perfect selfie, often falling off of cliffs. In some cases, other people tried to stop them, or children saw their parents die. The lack of spatial awareness and failed sense of danger . . . Terrible combination.

Video taking has also become a first-world problem. People are so intent on recording a scene, either for upload to social media for hits, or in order to accuse someone of something, that they get in the way of people trying to help. Or they deliberately get in the way of first-responders, for reasons I won’t go into. I laugh a little at the TV news people who dutifully report protests evaporating and people taking cover as sirens wail . . . and they are standing in the street, speculating if there is a rocket attack in progress. It’s not so funny when people intent on videoing a wreck cause a second one, or block paramedics and fire fighters. Or refuse to help, because the view through the screen is so captivating. Reality retreats behind the screen.

Had I been able to see clearly (had not yet found glasses knocked off by airbag) after the gal totaled my pickup back a few years ago, I’d probably have suggested that she hang up the phone or eat it. As it was, all she was doing was talking, just as she had been when she hit me. If she’d come trotting up to me, filming, or if a third party had come racing up to get pictures, I’m not sure what my response would have been. Impolite, that much I can pretty much guarantee.

The screen isn’t reality. Certain people do not seem to understand that the screen isn’t the real world. At least with traditional film and digital cameras, most people separated themselves from the device, and could put the thing down when needed. (Not that people didn’t do dumb things for and with traditional cameras, but still . . . ) The phone screen mediates between people and the real world, sometimes with fatal results. I chuckle at the Darwin Awards, but it’s not funny for the kids who watched their parents plunge off a cliff, or for the other people around. Or the people who had to recover the bodies and track down next-of-kin. It’s not funny for people involved in a wreck to have their pain and suffering uploaded for video hits. Educational, perhaps.

Instead of leopards and crocodiles thinning the herd, we now have motor vehicles and smart phones.