Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Great Things I Read in February, 2017 Edition

This is a few days late, isn't it? I had to postpone a little for my Mock Oscars, covering Logan, and a certain wonderful event in my family. I'll share that last good news with you in my next post, but for now, I want to share some amazing stories and journalism. It includes not one, but two Science Fictional stories of birds that just happen to be true.

As always, everything listed here is free to read with no paywall. I've linked directly to each piece. If you like what you read, consider grabbing a subscription to the publisher or dropping money into an author's Patreon.

Short Stories and Flash Fiction

"The Unknown God" by Ann Leckie at Uncanny Magazine

Such a thoroughly charming story from its first chatter between a frog and a mighty god about all the weird things the local atheists believe. There's quirky personality to its very eschatology, bouncing between personal lives and grand stakes. It's a chatty story, but the dialogue makes lightness of such heavy matters, and gives the motion of the story life, all the way to crystallizing its conclusion. There's wisdom here.

"April Showers"
by Lydia Guzman at The Sockdolager

I spent much of the month reason Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, and this is the only short story that evoked that novel's amazing depth of place. In "April Showers," we're taken into a part of the Spanish Caribbean, as opposed to James's Jamaica, reluctant to accept American intrusion, and proud of the culture that has left many of them tired. It has that classic literary pacing to it, where the sense of simply being there is enough, and lulls you into complacency right before something changes drastically. Also a hat tip to The Sockdolager's editors for not italicizing the Spanish words - fiction like this reads much more smoothly when all the language is presented in identical format, nothing exoticized, plain as when spoken by a native speaker.

"It Happened To Me: My Doppleganger Stole My Credit Card Info, and then My Life" by Nino Cipri at Fireside Fiction

I probably laughed too long at this exchange:

Nono: They have amazing throw pillows on clearance.

Me: What do you need throw pillows for? You live beneath a tree.

It Happened To Me is the story of an imaginary friend that grew worryingly realer as the child, Nina, grew up. It's a wonderful twist in your guts when Nono steals Nina's credit card and makes a purchase as many "imaginary friends" are blamed of doing, and then… pays Nina back. With a checking account that has exactly the amount owed in it and nothing more. The story has a sumptuous gossipy quality that teases you not with a big reveal, but with more private details of something going on under the surface.

"Once I, Rose" by Merc Rustad at Flash Fiction Online

The many lives of an entity that keeps being reincarnated as a new rose. Is it a chance for infinite beauty? Given that our first taste is being tossed in the garbage disposal by an angry ex-girlfriend, it's unlikely. Each life is so brief and wasted that it quickly becomes funny, especially by the time the poor blossom is eaten by a curious dog. You may have to be twisted like me to laugh at florist tragedy porn. And then, Rustad delivers an ending unexpected both by the forlorn flower and the reader.


"How an Island Full of Land Mines Led to a Thriving Penguin Population" by Hank Green at Mental Floss

After the military horrors that happened in the Falkland Islands, the region was left with thousand of unexploded landmines, many of them hidden. This makes part absolutely unlivable for any human travel of livestock. Even a wandering sheep will blow up a remaining landmine. But penguins aren't heavy enough to do the same. With no predators able to follow them through the area, allowing them to rule unopposed.

"Terrorists are building drones. France is destroying them with eagles." By Avi Selk at The Washington Post

Another bird story, but in this one they're on the attack. February saw a spate of reporting on how Dutch and French people were training eagles to take down drones. It's not just anti-terror; we know both the U.S. and Russia fly drones illegally close to people's borders for spying operations every day. The trick is that most drones, including the popular four-rotator model, aren't designed to be that nimble, nor can they maneuver too nimbly when controlled from a great distance by a human operator. An eagle that evolved to snatch small mammals off the ground after diving from hundreds of feet as no problem kidnapping such a drone.

These videos get addictive, and it's funnier when you learn that their militaries are designing leg-armor to make the birds absolute drone destroyers. How does it work? When you fly enough drones into the air with bird food, eagles pick up the training swiftly. They'll even bring an enemy's drone back to you, whole and operational. Ethics questions of using birds like this are only beginning to be asked.

"An Eminent Psychiatrist Demurs on Trump’s Mental State" by Allen Frances at the New York Times
Any sufficiently prolific politician will make enough public statements that, when compiled, they look insane. When it comes to Donald Trump, who is both a serial liar and inarticulate the point of misstating facts, it was good fun for liberals to point out how he was wrong and irrational, and since they hate him, charge him as insane. But this got disturbing when professional psychiatrists began violating ethics and diagnosing him based on hearsay and public appearances. This is not how psychiatry or medicine works. In this letter, the guy who wrote the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder has to tell the public to stop misusing it. It underlies an ableism that my fellow liberals are far too comfortable in performing.

"Neural Correlates of Sexual Orientation in Heterosexual, Bisexual, and Homosexual Men" by Adam Safron, David Sylva, Victoria Klimaj, A.M. Rosenthal, Meng Li, Martin Walter, and J. Michael Bailey at Nature

An oddly high number of people on both the heterosexual and homosexual sides believe that bi isn't a thing. They'll cite an article they once think they saw on a timeline about how chemicals in human brains can't react to both of the major genders. This study demolishes that old claim. The brains of bisexual men in the study responded distinctly with excitement and arousal to the male-gender and female-gender subjects. It's distinct from the reactions of heterosexual and homosexual men. I still don't know why so many people want to disbelieve that people claiming bisexuality are lying, but it's nice to have scientific evidence that it's not all some horrible liberal ruse designed to bother your tumblr friends.

"The Simple Psychological Trick to Political Persuasion" by Olga Khazan at The Atlantic

Admittedly, this has a terrible clickbait title. However, it revisits the fascinating social science hypothesis that groups are more receptive to different kinds of arguments. It focuses on a divide in the United States over how to treat refugees; when arguments are put into how best to treat the refugees, liberals are more receptive, but conservatives are not. However if arguments are re-framed in terms of national history, common good, and patriotism, conservatives are more likely to warm up. This kind of selective acceptability is something we all use daily; everybody knows that one person who has to hear things a certain way, or to have arguments put "tactfully." What this research tells us is receptability to kinds of arguments is socially reinforced, and likely learned. It could branch into discoveries that will change how we understand empathy and debate.

"Court Strikes Down Florida Law Barring Doctors From Discussing Guns With Patients" by Rebecca Hersher at NPR

Are guns a health risk? They are a leading cause of suicide, and are a daily cause of accidental self- and non-self-injury. While automobiles are another huge cause of death, doctors do discuss whether patients should drive, and there are medical reasons to take someone's license away. In a court case that hit the 11th Circuit, doctors were challenged on whether they should be able to question a patient's gun ownership. Florida lawmakers are so pro-gun that they sought to prevent doctors from even questioning this, despite physicians often being the only party who could check a mentally ill person at risk of self-harm. The ruling said doctors could do this, but it's not expected to be the end of the conflict in Florida, nor in America. As discussion continues about how many people need to be shot in the U.S. before it better regulates firearms, this is a conversation to watch.

"59 Percent of Millennials Raised in a Church Have Dropped Out—And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why" by Sam Eaton at FaithIt

Eaton is a Christian who loves his God, but doesn't love his church. In this piece, he tries to articulate the reasons why so many of his friends have walked out on it, the many ways they feel unheard, and why he fears he'll follow them. It includes that too many religious communities refuse to discuss difficult matters, and that "mainstream culture" takes so much of a beating despite it being where believers often find comfort and identity. The whole piece is an autopsy of alienation.


  1. That last one makes me feel very fortunate to go to the church I go to.
    Looks like the penguins rule the island now.

  2. Thank you John. Some wonderful reading ahead for me.
    I did know both of the bird tales (being a tad avian obsessed). Loved the letter the psychiatrist wrote. We toss insane around far too easily as a slur.

  3. These sound like some great books! I'll check them out :)


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