Friday, December 23, 2011

Microbiology rotation done!

This is the first day in over a month where I’ve felt relaxed.

It’s been the best month clinical-rotation-wise, but it’s also been the most stressful. This is the end of my microbiology rotation, and microbiology is my favorite discipline. My dream day job would be in a micro lab.

So of course I put pressure on myself to do well, to learn fast and to know as much as possible. I did learn a great deal - there was a lot of new information on bacteriology, antibiotics, mycology (the study of fungi) and so on – and the technologists asked a lot of questions to make sure I knew what was going on. The end result was that I did enjoy the rotation, but I also felt as though I was under a microscope myself. I can only hope I made a good enough impression.

On top of that were my two part-time jobs and the need to study for a qualifying exam that’s less than two months away. So I came home exhausted every day – my apartment looks as though it’s been burglarized, with stuff lying everywhere – and I was way too tired to blog.

They let us have today off, which is a great relief. I’ll still be going to the hospital, of course, but that’s for one of my part-time jobs rather than lab work, so it should only be a few hours.

So, what goes on behind the scenes at a microbiology lab?

The lab processes hundreds of specimens on a daily basis. As well as receiving samples from people who are sick, the lab tests screening swabs (to make sure in-patients aren’t bringing any superbugs into the hospital), water samples, and even medications from the pharmacy department. Everything is sent through the front end, where it’s entered into the system and given an accession number.

The people in the front end work like maniacs as a result.

After that the specimen, like a piece of luggage in the airport, goes on to its final destination. Depending on what the specimen is or what the doctor has asked for, it could be sent to the blood bench, the virology department, the screeners, etc. The bottles of blood are incubated and rotated in a large analyzer that looks like an enclosed wine rack. Technologists at the different benches put the specimens on various agar plates to see what grows.

It is always good when nothing does, not only for the patient but for the technologist. If something does grow, that’s when the train of thought speeds up. Is the bacterium a pathogen (disease-causing agent) or just a contaminant which sneaked in somehow? If it’s a pathogen, what tests need to be done to confirm its identity? If it’s a pathogen, is it present in sufficient numbers to report?

If technologists reported everything they saw, they’d be either dead from exhaustion or fired for incompetence.

Once the pathogen has been identified, it moves on to the antibiotic testing bench. I moved too, and spent a week learning more about antibiotics than two semesters in college taught me. What antibiotics is the pathogen resistant to? Is it a superbug? What antibiotics can be reported? The analyzer may tell you that the E. coli is susceptible to tetracycline. But if you report that and if the patient is seven years old and if the doctor doesn’t know any better and prescribes tetracycline, the patient will go through life with discolored teeth as a result.

You have to know a whole lot more than the machines and the computer system (and sometimes the doctors), in other words.

I didn’t get a chance to see the virology department, but that was the only disappointing thing about my experience. I even identified a fungal species correctly on my last day, which was all the better because that was the only day we spent on mycology. But it’s great to come home and rest, to have a long relaxed breakfast rather than bolting it with one eye on the clock and to know I’ve got the whole of the Christmas holidays before the chemistry, the next and final rotation.

It’s pretty good to be blogging again too. :)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Blood bank

So now I'm in the blood bank, AKA Transfusion Science. Between this, my two part-time jobs, studying for the CSMLS exam in February and doing revisions on During the Fire, I've been too busy for anything else.

But as well as my blog being overdue for an update, I like to describe the behind-the-scenes work in the hospital. So... blood bank.

When a patient needs a transfusion, a sample of their blood is sent to us for a type and screen. Most people know their ABO and Rh type (e.g. A negative, O positive), but pregnancy and previous transfusions can complicate matters. Being exposed to foreign antigens - and yes, a baby's can be treated as foreign by the mother's body - makes a patient's immune system react by producing antibodies, and this can lead to a bad reaction if they're given blood that hasn't undergone further screening. That's another thing the blood bank checks.

Then the blood can be further treated (e.g. irradiated to kill donor white blood cells which might otherwise attack the recipient) before being labeled and allocated via the computer system. It took me a good few days to become at all familiar with the computer system where everything that happens to a unit of blood has to be documented. I've never worked anywhere where accountability and cross-checking were more important.

Which is understandable. Issue the wrong unit and a patient could die. That's another thing the blood bank does - investigation of transfusion reactions, when a patient has a bad response to the blood they've received.

The Transfusion department also handles blood products (platelets and plasma) and recombinant products like clotting factors for people with hemophilia. It's a fascinating place to work, and the staff are friendly. The teaching tech assigned to us, though, is a bit of a prankster. One day I was in the walk-in freezer, getting some immunoglobulin to be issued to patients. The light switch is outside the freezer, so he crept up and turned it off.

I was so startled I swore. Naturally, he thought that was hilarious. Thankfully I didn't drop the bottles of immunoglobulin, which would have been somewhat less hilarious.

Off to work now.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Full Monty

It’s easy to imagine the high-concept for this film: “Six unemployed steelworkers become strippers”. But that short-changes The Full Monty, because it’s much more than a bawdy comedy. There are a lot of films I enjoy, but only one so far where I’ve shelled out for the DVD, and this is it.

The films begins after Sheffield’s steel industries have collapsed, and months of unemployment have left most of the former steelworkers depressed and cynical. Gaz can’t afford child support, despite his various schemes for earning a quid here and there, while his best friend Dave is physically as well as financially impotent. Dave’s wife, now the family’s breadwinner, feels he’s given up on her as well as on himself, so she goes out for the night to watch the Chippendales perform.

But that gives Gaz an idea. “Them buggers can, we can,” he says, and proceeds to round up a reluctant handful of his fellow unemployed.

Gaz is the linchpin of the film, a wonderfully drawn and acted character. In private he’s unsure of himself; with the rest of the gang, he’s driven, confident and energetic. He’s engaged in a constant juggling act as he tries to keep everyone more or less doing as he wants – all so he can continue to see his son.

The other characters are great too, though. Gerald, their ex-foreman, still hasn’t told his wife that he’s been unemployed for six months, so every day he dresses in a suit, takes his lunchbox and heads out to the Job Centre. Lomper is pale, skinny and suicidal – the scene where Dave fixes Lomper’s car’s engine and smoke immediately begins to fill the car’s interior is hilarious. Guy can’t sing or dance, but with his physical attribute, he may not need to. And Horse can dance, but needs a hip replacement. “Me breakdancing days are probably over, but there’s always the funky chicken,” he says.

As if six of the unsexiest wasn’t a recipe for success, Gaz is then put on the spot by a woman who asks why anyone would pay to see them instead of the Chippendales. “This lot go all the way,” he claims, giving the film its title and nearly scaring all the others into hanging up the G-strings for good.

But as they exercise and rehearse together, deal with their various problems – which eventually involve the police – and work up the nerve to take it all off, they slowly start to regain the friendship, confidence and masculinity they lost along with their jobs. For a comedy, this film touches on some surprisingly deep issues. It made me care, it made me laugh and it made me buy the DVD. Recommendations don’t get much better than that.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

From blood to worse

The Hematology rotation ended on Friday.

Two-thirds of the way gone, and I feel as though I’m running on empty. Here’s why.

Last week our clinical coordinator at the hospital informed us that there were a couple of part-time positions open at another department (Molecular Genetics), for students to help with administrative work. Date-stamping reports and sending them out, filing and photocopying and so on. I applied and got one of the positions, which was great in terms of getting a foot in the door.

It also pays five dollars more per hour than my Saturday job at the used-book store, so that’s good as well. I worried a lot about my finances after paying the final tuition fees. This job is going to help so much in that regard.

The problem is that after putting in eight hours at the lab and then two more hours of work, there’s nearly an hour’s commute home and I drag myself into the apartment, wiped out. Way too tired to blog, which is why this has been quiet lately.

Part of it was also because last week I was running about trying to get my immunization records in order to fulfil HR requirements, so that was exhausting too, and I ended up catching a bad cold that knocked me out for two days. But I’m feeling a little better now, and hoping that I can somehow survive the frenetic schedule until the end of January. I also really need to study more and keep up with writing.

Still, at least I did OK with Hematology. The next rotation is Blood Transfusion, so I’ll be working with the same substance but running different tests. And on that note, in Japan, it’s a popular belief that blood type has something to do with personality.

Forced to quit after barely a week as Japan's reconstruction minister for remarks deemed offensive to victims of the March earthquake and tsunami, Ryu Matsumoto had an unusual explanation for his behavior -- his blood type.

"My blood's type B, which means I can be irritable and impetuous, and my intentions don't always come across," he said Tuesday after his resignation.

If your intention is to show responsibility and remorse, obviously not.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Deserts in fantasy

I grew up in the Middle East so I have a soft spot for deserts and will read almost any fantasy novel which features them. My favorite act in Diablo 2 was also the second one, which is set in the deserts of Lut Gholein.

Creating a distinctive desert can be a lot of fun, too.

1. Terrain

Deserts don’t have to be vast stretches of sand dunes. They could be rocky instead, with great spires of weatherworn stone that fall away into deep canyons, or great expanses of pebbles which make ground travel slow if not hazardous. As for the sandy deserts, sand can be simply sand, or it can be granulated chemicals, salt or the crushed remains of bones. It could be red sand, green sand (like the poisonous desert in Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon) or white sand.

And in Dune, there were drum sands which amplified the sounds of travelers’ footsteps and attracted sandworms.

2. Magical features

I’ve blogged before about unusual physical phenomena, and a desert would be a great place to display some of these. Walls of whirlwinds or sentient sands could provide conflict and action as well.

3. Flora and fauna

It’s fun to imagine the kinds of creatures who have adapted to life in the desert. Dougal Dixon’s After Man and The New Dinosaurs are treasure troves of such imagination, but even existing fantasy creatures can be adapted for a desert life. Unicorns might be black—and partially metallic—so that they can use solar power, for instance.

4. Humans and humanoids

If there are settlements of people in the desert, how do they cope with the heat and the scarcity of water? Are they nomadic, moving from oasis to oasis, or have they simply adapted to the point where they don’t need to drink more than a handful of water per day (and if so, there should be other physical and social modifications).

A great book set in this environment is Colin Wilson’s Spider World Book One : The Desert (out of print, though, and I couldn’t even find a copy on Amazon). The humans, who live in burrows, use giant slave ants to gather water and a tamed wasp to hunt—the wasp injects prey with a neurotoxin. Of course, the humans become the hunted when their spider overlords drift over the desert on silken aircatchers, mentally searching for prey far below.

Deserts can be—and probably should be—as varied and dangerous in fantasy as they are in real life.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Perfect Red

This is the story of a color – and of the lengths to which people went to discover, obtain, steal and synthesize it.

Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire spans the globe and history, beginning with the use of red ochre in Neanderthal rites. Mysticism and metaphor are bound up in this color, and more than one condemned aristocrat wore it to their executions.

Yet a bright deep true red was difficult to obtain, and for painters and dyers that made it all the more valuable. The best dye, though, was derived from the cochineal beetle native to what was, at the time, the Aztec Empire.

And so cochineal passed into the equally-reddened hands of the conquistadores, although most of them preferred gold. From then on it became part of a Spanish monopoly on dye, which the British countered with government-authorized piracy and the French with a spy. If you enjoy history, especially the dramatic swashbuckling aspects of history, this book is a great read, but what really kept me hooked was the introduction of science.

The scientists of that time tried to discover what exactly cochineal was – because after cargoes of dried beetles, smaller than peppercorns, had been stolen or intercepted, no one was quite sure what they were. Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the first microscope, initially mistook them for seeds. As science became more advanced, though, dyes were synthesized—possibly the final blow to an industry that had survived warfare and espionage and biopiracy.

As well as being well-researched, this book is highly entertaining, with several chapters ending on cliffhangers. I even checked Amy Butler Greenfield’s website to see if she had written any other books which blended fashion, history, politics and science into such an absorbing read. Maybe a non-fiction version of The Color Purple? I’d buy it.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Aspen Mountain Press : A horror story

Since I published through a small press, I'm interested in news about such presses, especially those specializing in the genres I write. Aspen Mountain Press is (or was) a romance e-publisher and small press, and although I've never read any AMP books, they had some very distinctive covers.

AMP was established in 2007, so it seemed capable of lasting the distance. But the first signs of problems began in August 2010. This post on the former head editor's blog tells it all - and it's a nightmarish situation.

The story is a long one, but if you're interested in how a press can go very, very wrong, read this. It's unforgettable. Not to mention tragic, because the senior staff tried incredibly hard to pull the press out of the fire and ultimately even that effort was sabotaged by the owner. Apparently she was too depressed to work more than two hours a day, but well enough to cash checks and use royalty money for her personal expenses.

What puzzled me about some of the comments in the blog post, though, were the authors who had received only one or two royalty payments... but who had six or eight books (they specifically mentioned books, rather than short stories) with AMP. That's a lot of books to submit to a publisher which isn't making regular payments. I hope they manage to get their rights back - difficult at best with a publisher which isn't responding to even certified mail - and find a better home for their books.

On that note, the former senior staff of AMP set up another press called Musa Publishing. Although it may be better if writers wait and see how this press does in the long run, Musa has the same great cover artist and a good contract as well.

After the ordeal that was AMP, its writers and editors alike deserve a happy ending.

Edited to add : There's a Part 2 to the story. Authors who received their letters of rights reversion in the mail are still seeing their books offered for sale on AMP's website. The wheels have really come off the bus there.

I have no idea when or how this will end, but at least spreading the news will mean fewer people buying books that are being illegally sold, books for which the writers are not being paid.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hematology rotation

I once said that the two most challenging disciplines in Medical Laboratory Sciences, for me, were the ones beginning with H. So it’s a good thing I’m getting these over with at the start—and Histology actually wasn’t that bad. The first week of Hematology has left me feeling a little wiped out, though.

Hematology is the study of blood, which is partly why there’s so much more of a workload in this particular lab. Not everyone gets biopsies or Pap smears done, but everyone has blood tests. As a result, techs work around the clock. I’ve been on the seven-to-three shift, but that’s fine for a morning person like me.

For the first week I helped run the analyzer. That does the work of testing the specimens; what the technologists do is to interpret the results. Which ones are significant? Are they consistent with the patient’s previous results? What follow-up work needs to be done? Can a result be released if the analyzer has flagged it? When do we need to call in critical values?

And all these decisions need to be made in seconds. At first I didn’t know how the technologists managed to do that so fast—especially given that the screens are full of information—but towards the end of the week I was getting a little better at it. I also set up further tests with the blood and did all right. Though there seems to be a real scarcity of chairs in the heme lab, so I usually trudged home with aching feet.

On the other hand, I found out that the technologists like to get normal samples to use for comparison purposes, and will give student a meal voucher in exchange for some. And as you guys know, I adore freebies. So I let them take my blood and they let me run it on the analyzer, which was very cool. The technologists also proclaimed me “disgustingly healthy” after seeing the printout, so they might be tapping me like a maple tree in the future.

Next week I’ll be in Coagulation, monitoring all the ways things can go wrong with the intricate systems of blood clotting. That’s OK, but I also found out that the certifying exam I have to take in February will cost $499. See why I love freebies?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Thomas Nelson : Send referrals to vanity press

A year or so ago I signed up for Thomas Nelson’s book blogger program (called BookSneeze), and now I request occasional copies of their books to review. The books arrive quickly, there are no obligations to give a positive review and I’ve come across more than one keeper this way.

But a few days ago, the BookSneeze team sent me an email titled “An Exciting Offer from Our Friends at WestBow Press‏”.

Houston, we may have a problem. WestBow Press is Thomas Nelson’s vanity-publishing arm, and made it to the top position in my list of the most expensive ways to be printed. So I thought they were offering me a chance to see my work in print for $999 and up.


Use your blog to earn revenue and guide Christian writers. As a BookSneeze® Blogger, you are passionate about books.

But as a writer, I’m passionate about writers being paid for their hard work.

The WestBow Press Affiliate Program rewards influential bloggers like you with $100 for every referral you make, once that referral publishes their book.

Well, obviously they’ve never read my blog.

I’m fine with earning a little through my blog. Although I draw the line at Google ads and any content over which I have no say, I’m an Amazon affiliate and promote Swag Bucks here as well. On the other hand, that’s because I use both Amazon and Swag Bucks myself, and like the services they provide.

But there’s no way in hell I could promote WestBow Press as a good thing when writers will be $999 poorer right off the bat. Even the ten free paperbacks they get with the cheapest package aren’t entirely free. According to WestBow, “Packages include the cost of the free books, but you’re responsible to pay the cost of shipping and handling.”

Why doesn’t the email suggest I refer writers to Thomas Nelson? Wouldn’t that be a better choice for writers than a vanity press asking for a grand at the very least?

Use your blogging influence to empower others, and earn something for yourself in return. Since there's no added cost or effort required on your part, every published referral is pure profit for you.

I’m not interested in being a Judas goat for any amount of profit.

Other bloggers, especially if they aren’t aware of WestBow’s exorbitant prices, may well sign up for this. But I also hope this attempt to get referrals indicates that vanity presses are feeling the pinch as more and more writers resort to affordable self-publishing instead.

And that’s just fine by me.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Write Agenda : Soliciting donations to burn books

Writer Beware is a watchdog group which collects information on the publishing industry and on literary scams. Its founders, Ann C. Crispin and Victoria Strauss, are multi-published authors as well as being honest and helpful to other writers - and I'm speaking from experience there.

So of course the scammers try to discredit what they say. Normally such bad-mouthing is best ignored, but when I read Writer Beware's latest blog post, a follow-up seemed called for.

Because there's a hate group calling itself "The Write Agenda", and it's called for a boycott of books from anyone who criticizes it. Or criticizes scams, in general. Perhaps that's why I'm on the list too. At least I'm in good company.

I'm not sure what this list is supposed to achieve. Maybe if "The Write Agenda" was a huge group of librarians, booksellers, etc. it would have some effect, but right now it's an anonymous person or persons who can't seem to do more than conduct a half-assed smear campaign. Despite its many claims, websites and sockpuppets, "The Write Agenda" doesn't seem to attract much support (its Facebook page, for instance, has 32 likes).

Anyway, if I were that easily intimidated I would never have left the Middle East.

Not that that's all, though. According to another writer, "The Write Agenda" posted one-star reviews of its critics' books on Goodreads, though these have now been removed. And "The Write Agenda" also wants to burn its critics' books, so they're soliciting donations.

Sadly, they don't have a Photoshopped picture of a collection bin with my name on it, but maybe they'll buy a few copies of Before the Storm anyway. If anyone's doing a Fahrenheit 451 on the books of people who tell the truth about scams, I don't want to be left out. And if money's tight, "The Write Agenda" can always get e-copies.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dyeing and autopsies

Friday was my last day in the Histology department at the Hospital for Sick Children.

Now that rotation is over and I miss it a little, even though Histology was my least favorite aspect of medical laboratory technology. I always felt as though I was memorizing facts about it (a lot of facts) without ever really enjoying the material or the lab work the way I enjoy microbiology.

Worse, after each semester I would promptly forget everything I had studied, meaning the entire process had to be repeated for the next set of exams. Which was kind of depressing.

But the rotation helped a lot. Histology still isn't the most fun I've ever had in a laboratory (that would be the time I had to check on a bacterial culture at a quarter to midnight, so the guy I was dating came with me, and to this day I don't remember if the bacteria were all right). But anyway. When you spend all day working in one field, it's much easier to become proficient in it, and the rotation drew everything together so that all the facts I'd memorized made a lot more sense.

And then I got to see an autopsy.

I've read a lot of Patricia Cornwell's novels - Post-Mortem, Body of Evidence, etc - but seeing the autopsy for myself was... different, to say the least. No description can recreate the sharp smell of formalin, the sweat on your forehead, the sound of connective tissue tearing away, the squishy slippery feel of internal organs. I wasn't sure I would bear up beforehand, but it was all right as long as I didn't look at the face, hands or feet.

Staring at the torso made it easier to think of the anatomy diagrams in my textbook instead. I won't ever want to perform autopsies, but this one was an unforgettable experience.

Finally, on Friday I got a new lab coat because the old one was covered with colorful spots and blotches from all the tissue-staining we'd done during the week. And on Monday I start in Hematology.

Swag Bucks update

I read Rumer Godden's Miss Happiness & Miss Flower when I was nine and loved it, but my copy was lost in transit somewhere between Texas and Dubai. So it stayed on my to-buy list for years, until the book finally came back into print and I paid for another copy with Swag Bucks (affiliate link). Free books rock.

Well, free good books.

But I'm going to hold off on buying any more until it's time for Christmas shopping, and start stockpiling Amazon gift cards instead. Swag Bucks is a good way to earn these, and if you sign up now, you can earn an additional 70 SB by entering the code BIGTIMEBUCKS (which along with the signup bonus means you'd start out with 100 SB). The code is active now and is good until 11:59pm PT tomorrow.

There's also going to be a Swag Code Extravaganza tomorrow, though I'll be starting my next rotation - in Hematology - and will miss most of the fun. Basically, there'll be several codes given out by Swag Bucks throughout the day, meaning 60 additional SB. The first one will be on the Swagbucks Twitter feed at 6:00am PT. This is an easy way to get a few additional bucks.

And if you're signing up, please consider using my referral code. :)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Where Has Oprah Taken Us?

Stephen Mansfield’s previous books include The Faith of George W. Bush and The Faith of Barack Obama, but this book is not called The Faith of Oprah Winfrey. Because from his point of view, she’s got the wrong faith.

Therefore it’s called Where Has Oprah Taken Us?: The Religious Influence of the World's Most Famous Woman. Partly an examination of Winfrey’s life from an evangelical Christian perspective, and partly a commentary on the effects of religions in America, it made me curious. I haven’t watched a single episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and I didn’t know much about her except that she was in The Color Purple.

One review copy later, courtesy of Thomas Nelson’s Booksneeze Program, and I settled down to find out.

The start of the book is gripping. Winfrey was born in circumstances that were challenging to say the least—her unmarried mother was a maid, and this was rural Mississippi in the 1950s. Her adolescence was marked by a pregnancy at fourteen, the baby dying a month after birth.

Yet she never stopped believing that she had “a higher calling”. And when she was hired by the local CBS affiliate to become the first black female anchor in Nashville history, she capitalized on her talents—intelligence, an ability to connect with people and an innate strength.

During one early assignment, Oprah introduced herself to a shopkeeper and offered her hand. “We don’t shake hands with niggers down here,” the man angrily retorted. “I’ll bet the niggers are glad,” she fired back, unflinching.

In her twenties, though, the religion she’d been taught in the Baptist church she attended no longer satisfied her. Years later, though, as she struggled to reinvent her show, she embraced spirituality and endorsed the careers of many New Age mystics with the Winfrey rubberstamp.

That’s where the book stopped being interesting. After that point it’s no longer a biography, albeit a biased one—instead, it’s an attempt to counter Winfrey’s beliefs with Mansfield’s beliefs. Italics set his more evangelical commentaries apart from the rest of the book, so readers who don’t already agree with this perspective know what they can avoid.

I read them all, though, and found Mansfield’s views as unrealistic as he clearly finds those of Deepak Chopra. In his world, all humans need gods to tell them what to do. Minus the god, he believes we either worship myths or ourselves—or in Winfrey’s case, combine the two by elevating oneself to mythical status.

And while her dreams (especially with regard to the film Beloved) may sometimes cross the line between ambitious and inflated, I’m not sure that Mansfield’s perspective is any better. He describes humans as “servants” and “subjects” who “do not create themselves or their destinies by thoughts or mantras or anything else” (pg 178). If Winfrey had believed that she could not influence her own future with her hard work and talent, where would she be today?

Then again, Mansfield displays a consistent fear of other people’s independence, especially their mental freedom of thought. One of his chief criticisms about Winfrey is that she picks and chooses what is meaningful to her from the beliefs of various religions. Another is that she leads us into temptation—specifically, that she uses her power and influence to foist New Age mysticism on people.

Jesus said something about eyes and planks which may be relevant here.

So where has Oprah taken us? I finished this book unconvinced that she was contributing to the downward spiral of America, mostly because there was no evidence that her religion—whatever it is—was doing anything to people that Mansfield’s hasn’t done as well. Though the book does include fictionalized accounts of how Oprah viewers “Jenny” and “Tina” became dissatisfied with Christianity or with their lives as a result of absorbing Winfrey’s endorsements of New Age gurus. And after reading those stories, I think Mansfield should try writing non-fiction instead.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Money in fantasy

Monetary systems in fantasy often fall into the gold/silver/copper lines. Partly because this is familiar and partly because it’s easier for readers to remember than, say, platinum/steel/tin.

Usually, the variations come in what the different types of coins are called. In Westeros, the world of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, gold coins are dragons and silver coins are stags – an interesting tip of the head to the political system, where the previous (dead) king’s symbol was a dragon, and the current king’s sigil is a stag.

In China Mieville’s world of Bas-Lag, people use shekels as currency, which I liked a lot because it reminded me of the ancient Middle East. Jack Vance’s world of Tschai is even more imaginative, though, since people there use sequins.

Sequins, on Tschai, are small colored gemstone-like objects that grow in nodes that bud unpredictably from the ground. Nodes can produce over a hundred sequins, which all start off clear, but take time to ripen to their final colors of scarlet and purple (passing through white, blue, green, etc. along the way). This sets the system in place – the clears are almost worthless while the purples are the most valuable.

So fortune-hunters on Tschai look for nodes. Needless to say, there’s an area where nodes do grow in some quantity, and it’s a hunting province patrolled by the vicious aliens called the Dirdir.

In our own past, people have used cowrie shells and salt as currency (the word “salary” derives from “salt”). Theoretically, money can be made of anything, as long as people can’t easily reproduce or damage it – coins made of glass would be unfeasible. It should also be in a form that can be readily transported and transferred.

Only in modern times has money been digital, existing as information passed from one computer network to another. I’ve thought and thought, but there seems to be no way to translate this to a fantasy world, without first setting up a banking system and teaching people finance. Until then, characters will just have to carry around their shekels, sequins, stags and so on.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Your last meal?

I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s going on the list. Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals from Death Row, by Ty Treadwell and Michelle Vernon, not only describes what condemned prisoners last ate, but includes jailhouse recipes.

That would make for an interesting dinner-table conversation. “This soup is delicious.” “Why, thank you. It’s based on the Alcatraz recipe – with a dash of fish sauce for that Hanoi Hilton flavor!”

But for those of us who aren’t into cooking for large numbers of hungry felons, there’s still a lot to enjoy. James Smith requested a lump of dirt, which he didn’t get. Maybe the prison yard dirt was just too gravelly for him. And Victor Feguer asked for a single olive, unpitted. He probably got that.

David Castillo, though, went to the opposite extreme and ordered “24 tacos, 2 cheeseburgers, 2 whole onions, 5 jalapeno peppers, 6 enchiladas, 6 tostadas, one quart of milk and one chocolate milkshake”. I’m thinking that after such a meal, prison officials might as well have sat back and waited for his cholesterol levels to kill him.

Entertaining though this is, the authors never let you forget that the people in question committed despicable crimes – each section has at least a one-line mention of the condemned prisoner’s murders. I won’t say you need a strong stomach (no pun intended) but it’s not entirely light-hearted either.

Which got me to thinking about my own last meal. No contest, really. I’d want a full Sri Lankan spread – rice, chicken curry, murrunga (drumstick curry), mallung (chopped greens), mango chutney, poppadums and coconut sambol hot enough to cause spontaneous weeping six feet away, washed down with a glass of sweet coconut water. The only thing I’d decline would be a banana leaf platter. I am somewhat Westernized.

What would your ideal last meal be?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Price is Wrong

PublishAmerica’s royalty checks – or lack thereof – went out at the start of September, and most writers received a reality check as a result. While their shocked and disillusioned reactions are painful even to witness, they’re also predictable. Without exception, PublishAmerica’s books are priced so highly that they’re not likely to sell except to the author's family and friends. Some Kindle ebooks are priced at well over $20 (after the author has paid $49 for the book to be uploaded to the Kindle).

That made me think of book pricing in general, though.

Writers can directly control the prices of their books only when self-publishing, and even then a self-publishing service such as CreateSpace won’t take a loss on a book, so there's a minimum price which needs to be set. There’s more flexibility with ebooks, though. Self-published ebooks tend to be between $0.99 and $2.99 on the Kindle, and some are even offered for free.

There’s some debate about this – does a cost of $0.99 devalue the book and scream “self-published”? A number of readers will still take a chance on any book which costs only a dollar, so would that make up for the readers who’ll automatically avoid it? I’m not sure what to think about this, perhaps because I don’t have an ereader of any kind, and I generally don’t take chances on print books unless they’re free.

Still, if I were selling a self-published ebook I’d probably go for $1.99 no matter how long the book was. That seems like a safe compromise.

In general, readers won’t pay more than $5 for an ebook unless the author is a household name. And even if they do pay $10 or more, which some publishers charge, they won’t enjoy it. Many one-star reviews for highly-priced ebooks on Amazon are complaints about the price rather than about the quality of the book.

That’s self-publishing. What about trade publishing?

The longer the book, the more the publisher needs to charge, and there’s a threshold above which readers won’t go. Usually that’s around $30 for a hardback, $10 for a mass market paperback and so on. Even Susanna Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an 800-page doorstopper in hardcover, sells for $27.95 – and was backed up by an "imaginative (and aggressive) marketing campaign" from Bloomsbury.

Too high and the reading public simply won't buy. Too low and there won't be much reward for the writer's hard work, unless the sheer number of copies sold makes up for that. It's a balancing act.

Finally, editor Anna Genoese wrote a great article on how publishers determine profit and loss – and how a book can fail to make the former. Check it out. I especially like the article because it blows a hole in the myth that if your book doesn’t earn out, you have to return the advance.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Horses in fantasy

Horses are common in fantasy, and have as much of a mystical appeal as swords. When I was a kid, I loved reading horse books – My Friend Flicka and The Black Stallion. Horses feature prominently in mythology as well – the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are often identified by the colors of their mounts, and Odin was said to ride the eight-legged horse Sleipnir.

The most well-known horse in fantasy may be Shadowfax from The Lord of the Rings, but there are dozens of others, such as the white horses in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. The horses are telepathic beings called Companions that choose certain humans.

But because horses are so often haloed in this way, I enjoy seeing them hostile and dangerous. The Keplians in Andre Norton’s Witch World are red-eyed beasts that lure humans to their deaths, though even they were civilized in The Key of the Keplian, when a girl saved a Keplian mare and her foal.

I’d love to see ugly horses as well. With horns or tusks, maybe, or natural bridles in the form of tendrils sprouting from their heads. Said tendrils would sink into the flesh of a rider, linking the two creatures via nervous system and meaning that commands could be given mentally and instantaneously.

They could have sharp, slashing blades growing from their bodies – like the Hippae in Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass. When people ride these horses, they’re forced to sit perfectly upright so they don’t get impaled on the spikes jutting from the back of each horse’s neck. As for the Hippae themselves, they’re intelligent and vicious – one review described them as being “velociraptor-like”.

Armored horses are also an option. They might grow flat close-fitting plates of keratin along their backs and sides for protection – though that would also reduce their speed and they might have broader hooves to carry the excess weight. They just wouldn’t have the “champagne-glass ankles” of thoroughbreds.

In the world of Eden, I like to characterize lands by the different types of horses they use. Dagre, in Before the Storm, is the closest to what we’d consider normal, so their horses are ordinary too, but the only breed of horse in Iternum is the palomino.

And Lunacy has intelligent but wild horses, which prey on people. Natives of Lunacy ride anything but horses, because there’s too much of a risk of the wild horses trying to impersonate tame ones, or even breed with them.

In Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a humorous parody of the cliches of fantasy, she mentions horses being treated as living motorbikes. That’s something a writer needs to take into account if the horses are covering miles and miles of rough terrain without rest or food. And if they’re a different breed of horse which is capable of this – like the sandsteeds in A Feast for Crows – it might be more realistic to give them a weakness too.

What are your favorite horses or horse stories?

Image from:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Rotten Reviews and Rejections

A lot of writers have read Pushcart Press’s Rotten Reviews and Rejections… or if they haven’t, they might like to. If literary greats like Emily Dickinson and John le Carre could receive rejection letters, it could take the sting off the polite refusals in a hopeful writer’s inbox.

So I enjoyed reading most of the entries. Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth was turned down with the comment,

Regret the American public is not interested in anything on China.

“The what Luck Club?”

Then then there are the rejections that just don’t make sense, such as the one which seems to mistake George Orwell’s Animal Farm for a story about animals. I once did that too, but I was eleven at the time.

On the other hand, some of the rejections are understandable. If a book is 350,000 words long, it’s very unlikely to be published (and if it is, it'll need a marketing push to make up for the higher price). Many of the entries are also rejections or reviews of older books and classics. So this book is still well worth a look, but I wouldn’t take it as evidence that the publishing industry is dying, that editors don’t know a good book when they see one, etc.

Finally, my favorite rejection was the one for Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere's Fan.

My dear sir,

I have read your manuscript. Oh, my dear sir.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Five kinds of houses in fantasy

From fairytales to epic fantasies, this genre has some of the most mind-stretching concepts when it comes to houses. Children’s stories have the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel, which uses an easily adapted concept – use one’s living quarters to attract prey. Then there’s the chicken-footed cottage of Baba Yaga, and it only gets better from here…

1. Living houses

One of my favorite paintings in The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe depicts a Villar, which looks like a gigantic human hundreds of feet tall… from the waist down. Its torso is a castle, complete with turrets and battlements (it has no head, adding to the alien look), and inside the torso, the Dwellers ride the nomadic Villar.

What I like most about living houses is that they take care of waste management and food supplies. Living in the fruiting body of a giant fungus, for instance, means breaking off a chunk of the wall whenever it’s time to eat.

2. Organic houses

Huge seashells come to mind, especially if they have many coils and turns within. Or what about the exoskeletons of giant insects or the skulls of ancient creatures? One of the most memorable things about China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station is Bonetown, which sprang up around the Ribs that are part of a giant skeleton. If the body of a dragon was preserved, people might only need to hollow out the interior.

3. Moving houses

Going a step beyond houseboats, houses might drift through the sky – either built on something which already floats (such as rocks in the Edge Chronicles) or soaring on their own power. People might never need to descend from a skyhouse if it has some means of catching food, perhaps trapping birds or snaring prey on the ground. And in an arid land, this would be a good way to follow the seasonal rains.

4. Segregated houses

Especially in cultures which practice polygamy, each wife may have her own house which the husband visits – though I wouldn’t mind seeing it done the other way around.

5. Sentient houses

In Ray Bradbury’s “There Shall Come Soft Rains”, a fully automated house goes on cleaning itself, cooking breakfast and running hot bathwater long after its inhabitants have died in a nuclear holocaust. I would love to have an apartment that cleaned itself. And a house which could communicate with me might be very convenient, not to mention excellent for security.

Unless intruders managed to foil its defences somehow, perhaps turning the house against its owners. Then it would not be so good.

And while the Bradbury story is SF, it could be easily adapted to a fantasy or horror setting, as the characters slowly realize their house is sentient or as they and the house work together against a common threat.

Which kind of house is your favorite?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

First day

Today was my first day in Clinical Placement.

Technically that started yesterday but that was mainly orientation, meeting with Human Resources and so on. The real work, in the labs, began today and I was in Histology.

Histology is the study of tissues. So if you find a lump somewhere a lump should not be, and if the doctors do a biopsy of it, the little bit they take out is sent to the histology department (or pathology department, as it's sometimes called). We get to process the little bit into such a form that the pathologist can look at it under a microscope and tell whether the lump is a bad lump that needs to be removed before it makes any more lumps.

One thing I always liked about medical laboratory technology was the distance it maintained between the lab and the patients, because while empathy is important, a certain degree of detachment is also necessary to go about your work. You can't start feeling for everyone, or you'll burn out. In medical laboratory technology, samples are delivered to the lab in labeled containers and results go out in printed or digital reports, which is fine by me... but in histology, some of those samples are very recognizable as once having been on people.

And sometimes they are people. There is a chance I may see an autopsy. Not quite sure what to think or feel about this, although the staff at the hospital are very kind and would understand if I had to leave halfway through the procedure. Actually, they'd probably prefer that to my keeling over and needing to be carried out.

Anyway, that was my first day. I wasn't rushed off my feet, but there's a lot to know and study about the discipline. And future jobs depend on this first impression, so I have to work hard.

Wish me luck, everyone. :)

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Skin Map

Kit has a difficult enough time navigating the London Underground, but he soon finds out that making his way through a network of ley lines is infinitely harder. An old man calling himself Cosimo Livingstone – and claiming to be Kit’s great-grandfather – shows him one of the lines, but Kit declines to help with Cosimo’s mysterious “project”. That is, until Kit’s skeptical girlfriend Wilhelmina decides to check the ley lines out herself and vanishes.

This is the start of Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Skin Map, a fantasy that hooked me from the start. For some reason I’ve always been fascinated by ley lines, ever since I first read about them in Graham Masterton’s horror novel Walkers. Given that this book was likely to be a great deal less scary, I requested it from Thomas Nelson as part of their Booksneeze program and dived in as soon as it arrived.

Since ley lines can take people “anywhere or anywhen”, Kit and Cosimo have their work cut out to find Wilhelmina. They also have avoid the Burley Men, who are searching for the titular map, a guide to the secrets of the ley lines. The map was once tattooed on a man’s skin and is now parchment.

The story goes from Merrie Olde England to a sojourn in Egypt where the antagonist, Lord Burleigh, meets Howard Carter and helps excavate a tomb. Meanwhile, Wilhelmina – who is nothing if not adaptable – ends up in Prague in 1606, where she earns her keep by working for a baker and opening the city’s first coffeehouse.

Some suspension of disbelief is required to buy a modern woman not only doing all this but happily managing without hot water on tap, electricity, etc. But what kept me interested despite this niggling doubt were the descriptions. Lawhead does these extremely well, whether it comes to depictions of characters or of historical details such as apostle spoons. I especially liked the alchemist’s laboratory with its granite mortars and “prehistoric insects in lambent lumps of Baltic amber”.

One problem, though, were the said-bookisms. Characters rarely just say something. Instead they declare, venture, assert, prod, echo, offer, object, declaim, prompt, allow, wonder, counter and even yip. This is the first book I’ve read where people yipped. Finally, although the different threads converge at the end, the plot is by no means resolved—this is the first in the Bright Empires series—so it’s not for anyone who wants a self-contained book.

For what it is, though, it was an entertaining read. I’ll probably check out the sequel, if Thomas Nelson offers that as well.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Shields in fantasy

The first memorable shield I ever read about was Athena’s, which bore the head of the Gorgon Medusa. Continuing the Greek motif, the movie Troy had the Greeks using shields in a testudo formation, plus Brad Pitt Achilles made good use of his during fights.

But there weren’t too many famous shields in fantasy, which is understandable. Swords are offensive weapons; shields are defensive. You can barely read classic or heroic fantasy without tripping over a sword that’s special in some way; not so for shields. When I started thinking of shields, though, numerous ideas came to mind.


On a battlefield where combatants had their faces covered, shields could be used as an identifying device, hence the practice of painting them with a knight’s coat of arms. Of course, they don’t necessarily have to sport such a crest. They might simply be designed in such a way as to strike fear into their opponents – worked with a snarling face, for instance, or constructed of human bones.

That being said, keep the environment and the technological level of the society in mind. Not to mention the strength of whoever’s lifting the shield; a slab of granite studded with diamonds may turn aside any weapon, but it’s also completely impractical.


Highly polished shields could be mirrors. Prince Oberyn Martell makes good use of such a shield in a climactic battle in George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords. Although he had to wait for the sun to emerge. Maybe someone with a spelled shield might be able to make it glow so fiercely that opponents would be forced to look away – if the shield bore the image of a sun, perhaps?

A shield could also have a design that produces the opposite effect. Say, a hypnotic swirl that mesmerizes opponents, or at least gives them a splitting headache. Or what if it’s a featureless blank that takes on the image of whatever most affected an enemy?


This is the best part, because almost anything can be done to make shields dangerous. Maybe they attract the enemy’s weapon as if it’s magnetized – meaning it’s all but yanked out of his hand. Or they could repel weapons instead.

They could be enchanted so that their wielder can see them, but the enemy can’t. They could suddenly (and scarily) sprout long clawed tendrils or chains when an enemy is within arm’s-length, trying to grab him.

They might be the portals to abysses that are terrifying and yet compelling at the same time. You can’t look away from the black nothingness before you, and yet you know that whatever goes into it – whether it’s your weapon or your arm – won’t be coming out again.

That was fun to write.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Swag Bucks : a review

As a college student (though not for much longer!) I'm always looking for ways to save money. So I mentioned earlier that I had signed up with Swag Bucks, and I thought a post about the results thereof would be in order. Here's a list of the things I've paid for with SB, from May 2011 on.

1. DVD of The Full Monty. I love British comedies, so I've always wanted to watch this.

2. Lynn Price's The Writer's Essential Tackle Box. To join my collection of books on writing and publication. I'll do a review of it later.

3. William Rehder's Where the Money Is. The subtitle of this is "True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World", and it's by a former FBI agent. It's an incredibly fun read - not only did the information make me feel like an insider on both sides of the law, but the style is breezy and amusing. I especially liked the story of the Hole in the Ground Gang.

4. Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand. Talk about a life less ordinary.

How does Swag Bucks work? Basically, you get points awarded (on a random basis) for using Swag Bucks' search engine, and it's possible to win three or more times a day. There are also a set number of points that can be earned daily for voting in a poll, clicking on a toolbar, playing games and so on, plus Swag Bucks gives out daily codes which can be entered for more points. Points can then be traded for gift cards, such as PayPal or Barnes and Noble. I always order the $5 gift card, and I earn 5 of those a month (it's possible to earn more, but IMO you have to be pretty dedicated for that).

An extra $25/month comes in very handy. Especially since even third-party sellers on Amazon can be paid with gift cards, meaning I can buy some of the out-of-print books I've wanted for years.

So I recommend Swag Bucks as a great way to earn a little extra cash that (for me at least) can only be spent on books and DVDs. Before, I had a list of books I wanted for my collection, but because of my budget I would only cross off one or two every year, usually for Christmas. Now the list is shrinking. I feel thoroughly self-indulgent.

And here's my referral link. :)