meow, cat, Siamese, catty

New Vignette Challenges

There's a new vignette challenge over at Sarah Hoyt's blog. My effort goes back to the time shortly before the Lanakhidzist Revolution, and a regeneration gone wrong in an unexpected way.

marycatelli also has a vignette challenge up at her LiveJournal. My effort also belongs to the Grissom timeline, albeit much later, as Shepardsport Pirate Radio celebrates its first year.
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Beyond the Traditional Understanding of Obesity

Most of us grew up with a simple explanation for obesity, which we probably learned in grade school health classes: calories consumed greater than calories expended, weight gain; calories consumed less than calories expended, weight loss. Even a small surplus, as little as a single grape a day, would inevitably lead to weight gain, and ultimately to dangerous obesity. Furthermore, we were told that calories were effectively fungible, and it made no difference where they came from.

Within those lessons was a sharp moral lesson, whether intended or not: fat people lacked self-discipline. Like people who overspent, overeaters' real problem was one of moral character, not people with a medical problem. If they could just buckle down and apply more willpower to avoiding empty calories and exercising more, they could get back down to a healthy weight, but they preferred the pleasures of idleness and poor eating habits.

However, scientists are discovering that it's not so simple. Humans aren't only ones getting fatter with every decade. A wide variety of species, from monkeys to dogs and cats to laboratory rats and mice have shown a steady increase in weight over the past several decades. And while one can blame dogs' and cats' weight gain on over-indulgent owners, and the monkeys' on raiding human garbage, the diets of lab animals are rigorously controlled, pelleted and often weighed down to the gram, in order to ensure that random variations of diet will not invalidate the results of medical studies.

As a result, scientists are discovering the complex interactions of hormones and environment on energy expenditure and weight gain, which make the old "eat less and move more" adage increasingly suspect. For instance, the old maxim of "a calorie is a calorie is a calorie" is one of the first things to fall by the wayside. This notion grew out of the result of early metabolism tests which determined the calorie content of foods by burning samples of known mass in a calorimeter. However, metabolism is not combustion. The body, whether human, canine, feline, murine, or avian, extracts energy from food through a complex sequence of chemical processes which produce relatively little heat (the body heat of birds and mammals is less a direct product of metabolism than a product of the physical and chemical functions of the various parts of the body, especially the muscles, the liver and the brain).

As a result, the traditional caloric values of foods may well not provide an accurate picture of how much energy is actually bioavalable. How a food is prepared can make a great deal of difference in how much of its energy is available for digestion and how much will pass on through the digestive tract as waste.

Furthermore, it appears that the body does not necessarily extract and store every available calorie that is consumed but not immediately expended. In fact, there are a number of complex factors that determine how the body stores and releases energy, resulting in paradoxical situations in which one person can eat far more than needed yet never gain weight, while another can be struggling to lose weight, even cutting intake down to points that leave them feeling exhausted and fuzzy-headed from hunger, and lose nothing or even gain weight.

Interestingly enough, the comforts of modern life may be contributing to weight gain in surprising ways. The ready availability of cars, elevators, and power tools has been blamed, with the idea that we are no longer using our bodies as motors the way our ancestors did. However, the ready availability of central heating and air conditioning and of powerful lights that turn night into day may actually be a greater influence. When we live in climate-controlled environments all the time, our bodies don't have to work as hard to thermoregulate. And when we live in lighted environments, our bodies become confused about the basic rhythms of life.

The more we learn about how the body uses energy and the various influences on that process, the more we realize we don't know. But one thing's for certain: it's time to rethink the Puritanical assumption that obesity is a failure of moral character, and fat-shaming is a useful "stick" to motivate people to get to a healthy weight.
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meow, cat, Siamese, catty

The Mathematics Beneath Physics

A fascinating account by a physicist who always disliked math of how he discovered that math could be fascinating through the gateway of string theory, which turns out to be useful in a number of abstract mathematical endeavors.

I found it particularly interesting that he always thought math was hard because of battles of wills over worksheets he found boring. I remember that problem in my grade school and jr. high years, and the teachers who equated ability with willingness to submit to tedious repetition. But then I also bridled at being made to write spelling words over and over until my whole arm ached. Both seemed far too akin to having to sit and write lines for punishment.
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Best for the Long-term Fan

1636: The Viennese Waltz (Assiti Shards, #17)1636: The Viennese Waltz by Eric Flint

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel is very much a side story, and is probably of greater interest to readers who have been following all the Grantville Gazette issues and know the whole story of the Barbie Consortium. I know that Emperor Ferdinand III getting an American car and setting up a race track outside Vienna was mentioned in a story in one of the GG issues, but it's been long enough that the details are blurry.

The novel starts with the arrival of the car and its up-timer mechanics, and the creation of Race Track City -- and the uproar that results when one of the uptimers automatically thanks a servant, something unthinkable to the downtime aristocracy, who seem to regard servants rather as we'd view a robot. Maybe even less, in fact, because a lot of people in the here and now talk to their robots, and even thank machines (if a little jocularly) for doing things.

The young woman is fired -- and then immediately hired by the uptimers' household, so she doesn't suffer disgrace or penury. And then the Barbies arrive with their uptime economic theories and begin to address the Austrio-Hungarian Empire's financial issues. In the process, they undermine confidence in the reichsthaler, and end up effectively pwning the Empire's banking system, for which they are formally ennobled in a ceremony.

However, as has been the theme in a number of the more recent books in the series, there is a limit to the rate at which societies can adapt to rapid change, and there will inevitably be a certain amount of pushback from the more traditionalist elements of society. This comes partly from the brother of one of the major downtimer characters, and from a priest who is massively offended by uptime habits of dress, even conservative attire. It also dovetails into the Italian storyline, of Borja's attempt to depose Pope Urban VIII and the resulting effective schism in the Catholic Church.

This is a Baen book, so a happy ending is pretty much a given, even if it means some hair's-breadth escapes and the down-to-the-minute discovery and disarming of a literal ticking time bomb. Yes, one major character will take significant injuries, and some minor characters die in the process, but disaster is prevented and the revanchists discredited.

There are a couple of down-timer names that have some awkward associations to a present-day reader, but would be just ordinary names in that place and time. I'm not sure how well it works to remind us that this story is set in a time before those events happen, and that the major protagonists of this series are hoping to avert certain horrors of history.

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meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Writing Challenges

This week's Odd Prompts writing challenge at More Odds than Ends was from nother Mike: "The motorcycle saddlebag held a bottle of fine wine…"

Now that took some thinking. Why would a biker have a bottle of fine wine in a saddlebag? And how to avoid having it broken, or turned to vinegar?

It felt like it belonged in the Big Messy Project, but not in the first part in the old hometown. Maybe in the part with all the faerie stuff -- which raises the question of just how my protagonist gets from the Little Cottage of Lost Play and the Lands That Are Not of Men to the later adventures, including the empty Land of the Lost set?

A lot of it's still unclear, because I don't know the precipitating event for her departure from those places on the boundaries of the magical, only that she will eventually flee, and it might have to do with the sword in the stone episode.


Of Elves and Motorcycles

The ground grew more solid beneath my feet, and the sense of time out of joint began to subside. As I grew more confident that I was once again reaching regions where I could feel confident of some reasonable safety, I took stock of my situation. So far as I could see, everything appeared to be unchanged, other than my clothes being considerably worse for the wear. At least I could set aside my fears of horrific transformations.

On reflection, I wondered if I'd misunderstood that one story I'd been told – perhaps the woman in question had not strayed into the faerie realms, which would've suggested mischance, or at worst a lack of appropriate caution and situational awareness while wandering. Instead might she have in fact deliberately intruded with the intent to break bounds, even to take that which was not for her to have, and as a result brought destruction down upon herself?

Especially if it was originally a cautionary tale for the bolder visitors to the Little Cottage of Lost Play, the distinction between inadvertent and deliberate trespass may have been minimized in favor of emphasizing the peril of entering places fundamentally alien to human nature? In which case, perhaps the fact that I had been fleeing for my life had protected me from the perils of the faerie realm.

Already the land was becoming less wild, more ordered. Was that a path there ahead – not just a trail beaten down by the passage of enough travelers over time, but one actually paved with some kind of stone or brick?

In fact the surface had an amber cast which made me think of the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz. Could I have somehow wandered into the Land of Oz, much as I'd slipped into the worlds of several other fantasy worlds?

Still, that was no guarantee that I'd arrived at a safe location. Childhood memories aside, Oz was not exactly a land of perpetual afternoon and happy times. Whimsical fantasy worlds were often based upon dream logic, which could rapidly turn into horror once adult logic was applied to their mechanics. And not just the nightmarish fanfic I'd stumbled upon, of Emerald City after a nuclear blast, with the Glass Cat half melted but still talking and poor Scraps the Patchwork Girl reduced to a few charred rags, but the implications of the immortality spell on the very young or the mortally wounded. The sort of stuff you don't consider when you're a kid and think it would be cool to live in a world where beloved elders don't have to grow old and frail, where mischance doesn't carry away friends and classmates.

On the other hand, Oz wasn't the sort of place where seemingly harmless things were apt to be nasty traps. There shouldn't be any great risk to walking on the Yellow Brick Road, although here it was going to be tricky to determine which way led to Munchkinland and which to the Emerald City. Although it might not matter that much, assuming I was coming here after the Wicked Witches were both defeated and Ozma restored to her rightful throne. If I ended up in Munchkinland, I could stay a few days and visit while I rested before making my way to the Emerald City and seeing whether I could find passage back to my own world, my own time.

I hadn't been walking very long before I heard a buzzing sound. At first I thought it might be a bee, but as it grew nearer, I realized it was in fact too loud, too mechanical – which was odd. I had never been a huge fan of the Oz books, much as I'd loved the movie with Judy Garland, but my impression of Oz had been a world that remained pretty much pre-Industrial outside the Emerald City.

Wondering what it could be, I turned just in time to see the motorcycle crest the hill behind me. And then it was pulling up beside me, its rider dismounting and pulling off his helmet with a flourish that freed his long, silvery hair, revealing ears that rose delicately to points, features just a little too fine for a human being.

Hadn't there been quite a craze for elves on motorcycles in early urban fantasy, before it went all shifters and call of the wild stuff? Who was the big-name fantasy author who'd done a series like that, and had to abandon it because some fans got just a little too wound up in it?

No time to search my memory, because the elf biker was speaking to me. "Milady, this is not a land in which it is wise for your kind to linger."

"Then this isn't Oz?"

"I am not familiar with that name."

I tried to explain about L. Frank Baum's stories, but it seemed to only confuse him more. At length he just shook his head, that beautiful face becoming heavy with regret. "Please, let us waste no further time with this conversation. Let me take you to lands more salubrious to the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve."

Uneasy as I was about attempting to ride pillion without any form of safety gear, the elf's concern brought back memories of my elven guide at the Little Cottage of Lost Play.


At that point, I'm still not sure exactly how the bottle of wine enters the story. I'm thinking they journey for a while, and then the elf stops and unpacks a picnic lunch of golden elven bread and a bottle of wine from human lands. To remain safe she must have both, but she finds that while the elven bread tastes like a glimpse of heaven, the wine tastes like medicine. She becomes afraid that she's been found wanting, but the elf reassures her that to an evil person, elven bread tastes like ashes and dust. The wine tastes like medicine because she was on the edge of going too far into faerie, and drinking human beverages is medicine against losing her humanity.

I also was able to get a new story up for the Indies Unlimited Flash Fiction Writing Contest. My effort belongs to the story of the Chaffee Artilect, when he's learning to manage a biological avatar.

As usual, you can participate in Odd Prompts by sending your prompt to It can be a bit of prose or poetry, a video or music clip, a photograph or artwork, just make it evocative.
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

New Vignette Challenges

There's a new vignette challenge over at Sarah Hoyt's blog. My effort deals with an astronaut in the Grissom timeline (possibly Reggie Waite, before he got crosswise with the higher-ups) being sent off to make a presentation at a school, getting lost, and having some Interesting times getting un-lost.

marycatelli has another vignette challenge on her LiveJournal. My effort has Doyle Culverton discovering a song brings back memories.