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November 30, 2011
Fast forward
Posted by Teresa at 05:43 PM * 99 comments

One of the sorrows of keeping hamsters is that their lives are so short. I had a thought a while back that I’ve found consoling: Hamster lives are longer than we think. They just run faster than ours do, as though they’re permanently set on Fast Forward.

Hamsters are overclocked.

Their hearts beat 450 times a minute. They’ve got a 16-18 day gestation period - the shortest of all the mammals. They’re weaned three or four weeks after they’re born, and hit puberty at four or five weeks. A few weeks after that the obligate solitary thing kicks in, and they have to go out into the world and become self-supporting adults.

They do what we do, only faster. You can watch them getting old - slowing down, eyesight deteriorating, fur fading - but still being very much themselves, just like us. Thing is, with them it’s a matter of months.

They die quickly too, most of them. It’s a terrible shock to us, but it’s proportional.

We love them, and miss them when they’re gone. That’s unavoidable. But we shouldn’t mourn so much for the brevity of their lives. They’re not that short. They’re just that fast.

November 28, 2011
Open thread 167
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:57 PM *

My latest initiation into Dutch culture is boerenjongens. The name means “farmer boys”, but not like this guy. They’re actually raisins soaked in brandy for about three months. They have…quite a kick. They’re a traditional Christmas delicacy* in the Netherlands, particularly in the north.

A Dutch friend brought a jar of them to a Thanksgiving feast on Sunday. We had them on apple pie, along with whipped cream. They were highly effective. I gather they also go well with ice cream.

There are also boerenmeisjes, farmer girls, which are apricots in brandy. I haven’t tasted them. I probably should do so—purely in the interests of science.


* I don’t know whether to call them a food (when the primary interest comes from the drink) or a drink (when you can’t get them through a straw).

Continued from Open thread 166

Continued in Open thread 168.

November 24, 2011
Happy Thanksgiving
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:38 AM * 42 comments

Q. Why do turkeys go “gobble gobble”?
A. Because they have terrible table manners.

Q, What’s big and green and goes “gobble gobble”?
A. Turkeysaurus Rex

Q. What’s inside a genie’s turkey?
A. Three wishbones.

Q. How many cranberries grow on a bush?
A. All of them.

Q. Why did the turkey cross the road?
A. The chicken gets major holidays off.

Q. What happened when the turkey got into a fight?
A. He got the stuffing knocked out of him.

Q. What does Godzilla eat on Thanksgiving?
A. Squash.

Q. What do mathematicians do on Thanksgiving?
A. Count their blessings.

Q. What always comes at the end of Thanksgiving?
A. The letter G.

November 23, 2011
Anne McCaffrey (1926 - 2011)
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:02 AM * 66 comments

I’m not an expert on McCaffrey or her works; she wasn’t a major part of my adult literary life. So I’m not really qualified to write a coherent obituary for her. There are some good ones already up: io9 and Tor.com have both done a better job than I could.

But she was important to me. Her works were to my adolescent self what Helinlein juveniles were to a lot of people fifteen or twenty years older. They opened up a world of storytelling that I hadn’t encountered before. I saw characters like me—or like I wished to be—going through adventures I wanted to go on, without too much of the saccharine taste of Mary Sue. I’ve been Menolly in my imagination, and Lessa, and Helva, and the Rowan. And although I’ve outgrown a lot of those stories now, some part of me always will want to live in a cave by the sea with my fire lizards.

November 20, 2011
How Not To Talk Like a Pirate
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:52 PM * 72 comments

If you have one of these handy beauties in your pocket you can plunder ships on the high seas. Yes, I’m talking about a Letter of Marque. How many folks have ever seen one? Well, I have, and, for the benefit of pirates everywhere who don’t want to dance a hornpipe at the end of a yardarm, I’ll give it to you in handy fill-in-the-blanks format.

But first, a bit on how I came by this beauty.

There I was in beautiful downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the other weekend. I was giving a lecture (with Powerpoint slides, go me!) to a society of Physician’s Assistants convention on the History of Declaring Death. The 18th and 19th centuries were hotbeds of question when it came to that subject, and many ingenious tests of death were proposed: My favorite is Middeldorph’s Test. You stick a long steel needle into the patient’s heart. If it doesn’t move, he’s dead!

(The recent Sherlock Holmes film with Jude Law as Dr. Watson was a great disappointment to me: Dr. Watson didn’t even make an attempt at Best Practices before he declared Lord Blackwood. At a minimum he should have applied Bouchut’s Test: Listen to the heart for five minutes with a stethoscope. Although the test that involved a plate of medical leeches and the patient’s anus would have been even more amusing. (Let’s not talk about the Turkish Test of Death, which requires a large bellows and two vigorous assistants.) I can see why the film-makers decided to abbreviate the procedure, though: Had Watson correctly employed the full panoply of Victorian tests of death to Lord Blackwood they would have had a much shorter movie in an entirely different genre, and Blackwood would have been no-kidding dead.)

But all that is aside. Having delivered my lecture, there I was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at loose ends on a Saturday afternoon. So the thought came to me: Why not drive to Massachusetts to buy a Souvenir of Massachusetts Refrigerator Magnet?

Massachusetts is easy to find from Portsmouth; just drive south on I-95. Then: Where to find a refrigerator magnet? In a gift shop. Where to find a gift shop? Clearly, a museum. They all have gift shops with Stuff in ‘em. So, punch “museum” into the TomTom navigator, and woo! Lookit that! Here’s one nearby, the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, MA! They do indeed have a Museum Store.

Newburyport, it seems, was a hotbed of maritime activity since just about forever. The seas around are also full of wrecks. It’s a narrow harbor (formed by the mouth of the Merrimack River), and, during nor’easters, Plum Island (just to the south) is a lee shore. The Atlantic off Newburyport is supposedly the worst stretch of water from Hatteras to Fundy. Newburyport is also the official birthplace of the US Coast Guard, so there’s a heavy Coast Guard presence in the museum.

They have paintings, and knot-boards, and historic Stuff, and models. One of the models (some lovely models) is of the Dreadnought, the packet ship. (As sung by our good friends Boiled in Lead: The tune is, once again, Derry Down.)

Then I spotted something on the wall, posted by the gift shop: A Letter of Marque from 1781. Begad, I thought, the Making Light crew will like this! And so I copied it down. The form was pre-printed, with blanks where the particulars were filled in by hand with pen and ink.

The Congress of the United States of America
To all to whom these Presents come sent GREETING

KNOW YE

That we have granted, and by these presents do grant licence and authority to [name of captain], Mariner, Commander of the [kind of vessel] called the [vessel’s name] of the burthen of [number] tons or thereabouts, belonging to [name of owner] mounting [number] carriage guns and navigated by [number] men to fit out and set forth the said [kind of vessel] in a warlike manner, and by and with the said [kind of vessel] and the officers and crew thereof, by force of arms, to attack, subdue, seize and and take all ships and other vessels, goods, wares and merchandizes, belonging to the Crown of Great Britain, or any of the Subjects thereof (except the ships or vessels together with their cargoes belonging to any Inhabitant or Inhabitants of Bermuda, and such other ships or vessels bringing persons, with the intent to settle within any of the said United States, which ships or vessels you shall suffer to pass unmolested, the Masters thereof permitting a peaceable search, and giving satisfactory information of the lading and their destination) or any other ships or vessels, goods, wares or merchandizes to whomsoever belonging, are or shall be declared to be the Subjects of capture by any Resolutions of CONGRESS, or which are so deemed by the LAW OF NATIONS: And the said ships or vessels, goods, wares and merchandizes so apprehended as aforesaid, and as prize taken, to bring into Port, in order that the proceedings may be had concerning such captures, in due Form of Law, and as to Right and Justice appertaineth. And we request all Kings, Princes, States and Potentates, being in Friendship or Alliance with the said United States, and others to whom it may appertain to give the same [name of captain] all aid, assistance and succor in their Ports, with this said vessel, company and prizes. WE, in the name and on the behalf of the Good People of the said United States, engaging to do the like to all Subjects of such Kings, Princes, States and Potentates, who shall come into any Port of the said United States; and We will and require all our officers whatsoever, to give to the said [name of captain] all necessary aid, succor and assistance in the premises. This Commission shall continue in force during the pleasure of the CONGRESS, and no longer.

IN TESTIMONY whereof, We have caused the Seal of the ADMIRALTY of the United States to be affixed hereunto.

WITNESS His Excellency [name] Esquire, President of the CONGRESS of the United States of America, at [city] this [ordinal number] day of [month] in the Year of our Lord One thousand seven hundred and [number] and in the [ordinal number] year of our Independence.

[signed]

[sealed]

Whether this Letter of Marque would have helped an American privateer who fell into the hands of John Bull is questionable, given the American Revolution was still a hot war at the time it was issued.

But what of the refrigerator magnet? I can hear you asking. Alas, the Custom House Maritime Museum is way too high-class a joint to sell such tourist trash. And so I went home disappointed.

November 17, 2011
Occupy Chaotic Good
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:13 PM * 426 comments

Occupy Wall Street—and thus the entire Occupy movement—is two months old. And I’m seeing the same messages from the pundits and the editorial writers today that I’ve been seeing the whole time: OWS has done very well, but if it doesn’t change tactics now, it’s going to die out. It’s time to get some leaders and adopt a coherent message.

There’s always a logical reason for the recommendations. Every time OWS hits one or another of the standard obstacles that popular movements do, all the helpful‡ bystanders urge it to solve the problem by following the well-known rules of lefty protest movements:

You have leaders with a plan. You have a simple message that fits on the signs you hand out. There are clear demands, preferably in neat sound bites. Speeches expand on the message and illustrate it with touching anecdotes. After the speeches, everyone marches somewhere symbolic. And if you do it all just right, the people in authority will see that you are many and you are mighty. You will get what you want. If you don’t, it’s probably because you didn’t follow the rules.

But we know this tune, albeit with different words.

You finish high school. You go to college, even if you have to stretch a little to afford it. You major in something sensible and get a good job after graduation. You buy a house as soon as you can, even if it’s tight for a little while, because its value will appreciate over time. You work hard, and hard work is rewarded. And if you do it all just right, you’ll have a better standard of living than your parents. If you don’t, it’s probably because you didn’t follow the rules.

How’s that one working out for folks? Everybody happy?

If the game is rigged against ordinary people just trying to get by, we’d be fools to believe that it’s going to be fair to people trying to change the rules. The Noise Machine, in all of its manifestations, is ready. It was built for this.

Message? Today’s news is tomorrow’s fishwrap. Without a new sound bite, you’re buried after one news cycle. And if you do have one, it’s either the same as yesterdays, meaning your movement is out of ideas, or it’s not, and you’re flip-flopping. And we haven’t even gotten to the content, which can be spun, misinterpreted, or just labeled “socialist”.

Leaders? Oppo research will already be underway on any good candidates from OWS. If they can be broken, they will be. If they can be discredited, they will be. If they can be hurt through their loved ones, they will be. And if none of that works, they will be smeared with lies that will never be fully refuted. One way or another, being the leader of a movement like OWS will be markedly less pleasant than standing in front of a sewage outfall.

OWS has avoided that entire trap so far, because it’s not following rules. It is, in Dungeons and Dragons terms*, Chaotic Good, and quite happy to be so. No matter how much the punditocracy urges it to straighten up, get a haircut, and put on a tie get some leaders and sort out a simple message, it keeps rumbling on, consultative and confusing. And when they claim that it’s losing steam and losing America’s sympathy, their columns sound more like wishful thinking than real understanding. Meanwhile, the social discourse is moving from deficits to inequality, and the establishment is uniting like it’s facing a real threat.

I say, keep doing what’s working. But that’s just my vote. Let the General Assembly decide.


‡ or not
* Third edition, or better yet, Second†
† Speak not to me of the Fourth Edition. I am the blogger, and I want my ruby-eyed demon.

November 16, 2011
Who destroys libraries?
Posted by Patrick at 09:40 PM *

This.

This.

This.

This.

This.

Who destroys libraries? Who singles them out for deliberate destruction? Barbarians. No, as Teresa points out, not “barbarians.” “Barbarian” was simply the Empire’s dismissive term for the civilizations on its fringes—civilizations sometimes more humane than Rome. Who destroys libraries? Fascists. Authoritarians. People in the grip of a very modern set of perversions.

Calling anything “fascist” conjures up memories of The Young Ones. But it means something. It means a world in which the brutal assholes of society systematically take power by carefully beating the crap out of everyone who might get in their way.

Michael Bloomberg has decisively aligned himself with those people.

Our mayor, our police department. For a thousand years, your names will stink in the nostrils of decent women and men.

Save the internet
Posted by Patrick at 02:11 PM * 77 comments

I’ve been too busy to fully track on this story over the last week or so. But if you’re an American and you want to continue to read sites like Making Light, read this and phone your senators and congressperson today.

Today.

EDITED TO ADD: The EFF is all over this. Here’s just one of several excellent pieces about what’s at stake.

November 15, 2011
We the unliving
Posted by Avram Grumer at 10:40 PM * 21 comments

(This has been sitting on my hard drive, in half-finished form, since September. I wish I’d thought to make it a Halloween entry.)

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, was among the first modern scientific dystopias, written in 1919, banned in the USSR in 1921 (the first book banned by the Goskomizdat), and published in English by a New York publisher in 1924. George Orwell reviewed it in 1946, and wrote most of Nineteen Eighty-Four the following year. (Contrary to Orwell’s assumption, Huxley had not read We when he wrote Brave New World. Rand’s 1937 book Anthem also bears some similarities to We, but it’s not known whether Rand had read Zamyatin.)

Taking place at some unspecified point in the future, after a global war has destroyed our civilization and given rise to a new one, We depicts a society transformed by scientific management. People (called “numbers”, and given numbers instead of names) live their lives according to tables and schedules, organized by the One State. Buildings are made of glass, so that everybody can always be seen, and curtains are drawn only for sex, which anybody can request of anybody else via a system of ration coupons. The protagonist (and narrator — the book purports to be his diary) is D-503, a mathematician working on the Integral, a spaceship that will spread the One State to other worlds. He is seduced by a woman — I-330 — who is a secret radical, working to sabotage the Integral project and the One State.

We abounds in mathematical metaphors. At one point, D-530 describes having his mind blown as a child by learning about the mathematical concept of i, the square root of negative one, which can stand in for both individuality (since i capitalized becomes I, the word for self), and imagination (since i is the basis for the branch of math dealing with imaginary numbers). It’s certainly meaningful that the novel’s radical seductress has a number that starts with I, since she’s an individualist, but maybe the symbolism goes further. Maybe I-330 is an imaginary creature. Specifically, a vampire.

Vampires work well as a symbol of corporate power — both corporations and vampires are immortal beings of great power that derive their sustenance from human beings. Vampires are also often portrayed as aristocrats — so often that I considered titling this entry “Lestat, c’est moi”, but I couldn’t quite figure out a way to make it work. Since the One State has no aristocrats (it’s egalitarian), and no corporations (it’s absorbed all economic function into itself), a vampire makes a good opponent for it.

It’s probably time for me to dig up evidence from the text. First, consider: What are the classic features of a vampire?

  • Sharp teeth, which they used to bite, draw blood, and feed.
  • Pale skin.
  • Hypnotic powers, and sometimes the ability to control those that they bite.
  • Long life, and often knowledge of times long past.
  • Super-human strength and durability, and no need to breathe.
  • An aversion to sunlight. In modern fiction, sunlight is often fatal to vampires, but in Dracula, the sun merely suppressed the titular vampire’s powers.
  • Their reflections don’t appear in mirrors.
  • They are creatures of the Devil.

In these excerpts, I’ve emphasized passages that imply that I-330 has one or more of these features, or at least that the author might be hinting in that direction. The “entries” refer to the divisions of the novel, which is presented as a diary.

November 14, 2011
Five Hundred Years Before
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 06:32 PM * 41 comments

The two prequel Mageworlds books are out now as e-books from our good friends at Tor. The Stars Asunder and A Working of Stars are the only two (so far) set in the Mageworlds themselves. In internal series chronology they are the first by some half a millennium, although they were the last published. They provide an entry point to the series, although someone entering there will have a different experience of the whole than someone who joins at some other entry point.

The other entry points are: The Gathering Flame, which details the First Magewar, and The Price of the Stars which opens the trilogy set during the Second Magewar. The Long Hunt is a stand-alone set some years later, and is a perfectly fine way into the series: It’s the shortest, the funniest, and a ghost story besides.

[The Stars Asunder] [A Working of Stars]

You should probably view these books as a two-volume novel rather than entirely as stand-alones (even though when we were looking for beta readers, we sought out people who had never read any other books in the series to make sure they worked, a task that got harder and harder as the series progressed). They cover the start of the Great Working designed to close the gap beween the Mageworlds and the Adeptworlds, and all the poor decisions, bad luck, and unwarranted assumptions by characters who should have known better that go along with such an undertaking.

Right now, both are up at Amazon for Kindle. The Stars Asunder is up at Barnes & Noble for the Nook. I expect that A Working of Stars will be available there shortly, and they’ll all be in the iBookstore betimes.

At this point, only Starpilot’s Grave, the second volume (the middle of the first trilogy), remains to be converted. Expect a triumphant announcement when that happy day arrives.

See also: I’m Pleased to Report: The other Mageworlds books, all in electronic form.

November 11, 2011
In Flanders fields (1915)
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 04:55 AM * 81 comments

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

—Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872-1918), Canadian Army Medical Corps

November 09, 2011
“Social” isn’t
Posted by Patrick at 08:06 PM * 98 comments

It’s hard to read a post like this how-to for deploying Google Plus badges without wincing, once you’ve read Maciej Ceglowski’s brilliant demolition of “social networking” theory, “The Social Graph is Neither.” Just saying. From Ceglowski’s piece:

There’s no way to take a time-out from our social life and describe it to a computer without social consequences. At the very least, the fact that I have an exquisitely maintained and categorized contact list telegraphs the fact that I’m the kind of schlub who would spend hours gardening a contact list, instead of going out and being an awesome guy. The social graph wants to turn us back into third graders, laboriously spelling out just who is our fifth-best-friend. But there’s a reason we stopped doing that kind of thing in third grade!

You might almost think that the whole scheme had been cooked up by a bunch of hyperintelligent but hopelessly socially naive people, and you would not be wrong. Asking computer nerds to design social software is a little bit like hiring a Mormon bartender. Our industry abounds in people for whom social interaction has always been more of a puzzle to be reverse-engineered than a good time to be had, and the result is these vaguely Martian protocols. […]

We have a name for the kind of person who collects a detailed, permanent dossier on everyone they interact with, with the intent of using it to manipulate others for personal advantage—we call that person a sociopath. And both Google and Facebook have gone deep into stalker territory with their attempts to track our every action. Even if you have faith in their good intentions, you feel misgivings about stepping into the elaborate shrine they’ve built to document your entire online life.

Open data advocates tell us the answer is to reclaim this obsessive dossier for ourselves, so we can decide where to store it. But this misses the point of how stifling it is to have such a permanent record in the first place. Who does that kind of thing and calls it social?

I suspect that years from now we’ll look back in wonder on that period when people talked about “social” as if it were something that can be sprayed onto a site like an aerosol, or bolted onto its side as an afterthought. And when people truly believed that if they boned up on all the latest-and-greatest ways to perform the incantations of liking, +1-ing, branding and circling, they’d be blessed and enriched by multi-zillion-dollar corporations. The way we look back four hundred years and say “Tulips? What was that about?”

This is also pertinent.

Open thread 166
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:12 PM *

There’s a class of good instruction set that invites generalization. You know the sort of thing—you start reading a list of rules for wood-finishing and realize that with a few tweaks and elisions, you could apply it to country dancing. Teresa posted one set recently, and I still touch back to my friend EJ’s handy list for running the revolution of your choice.

So today one of my Twitter contacts pointed me at this list: Jeff Peachey’s Ten Commandments of [bookbinding knife] Sharpening. Here’s the list (with the period language corrected), but I’d encourage you to click through and read the rubric.

  1. Thou shalt not round the bevel or the back.
  2. Thou shalt not use jigs.
  3. Thou shalt look at the scratch patterns in the metal.
  4. Thou shalt use a bevel angle appropriate for the knife and task.
  5. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors knife.
  6. Thou shalt sharpen side to side.
  7. Thou shalt use a grit progression and entire surface of the stone.
  8. Thou shalt not let thy sharpening system become glazed over.
  9. Thou shalt not advance to the next grit until the burr develops.
  10. Thou shalt not insult thy neighbor by insisting on the absolute superiority of any technique or system.

I’d be interested to see if this is an extensible instruction set. Is it, if you will, da Vinci complete? Can we generalize it?


Continued from Open thread 165

Continued in Open thread 167

November 06, 2011
Exothermica
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 01:08 PM * 77 comments

Autumn is here. It’s the season of wood fires and heaters. Candles glow in pumpkins, on Thanksgiving tables, and anywhere we want to banish the darkness. Soon we’ll be setting up dead conifers in our houses and draping them with electric lights.

What does this all have in common? Why, fire, of course! Lovely phenomenon. Keeps us warm, cooks our food, lights things up with pretty colors, destroys our houses, kills us. Quite the versatile exothermic reaction.

This is much in my mind, not only for seasonal reasons, but also because I’ve recently done a fire safety and evacuation course. It’s part of becoming a Bedrijfshulpverlener (Workplace First Responder). Leaving aside how much fun the training was, it also made me stop avoiding the question of what the members of my household would do in a fire.

So today was the First Annual Sutherland Fire Drill and Firefighting Extravaganza.

First of all, I planned out a decision tree for each of the bedrooms in the house, then had the person who slept there walk through it. It’s rather like a Choose Your Own Adventure story, albeit with the fire in control:

  • You wake up because the smoke alarm is beeping. What do you do first?
  • Turn on the light.
  • OK. Then what?
  • Test the door temperature.
  • If the door is hot, what do you do?
  • Go out the window.
  • OK. If the door isn’t hot, what do you do?
  • Check for smoke outside the door.
  • If there’s smoke, what do you do?
  • Close the door and go out the window.
  • Right. If there isn’t smoke, then what?
  • Go into the hall and check my sister’s door.
  • What do you do if it’s hot?
  • (long pause) Leave it closed and go to your door.
  • Why? What’s the first rule of emergencies?
  • Don’t become a casualty yourself.
  • Right. Because then we have two people to worry about rather than one. What do you do at my door?
  • Test it to see if it’s hot.
  • (et cetera)

Note how most of the branches in the decision tree occurr at doorways. See, a door does two things in a fire. First of all, it masks what is on the other side. And second, it acts as a firebreak. Even the frailest hollow-core door can buy you precious seconds to get away.

So the key skill everyone acquired today was opening a door. You should learn it, too. Here’s what to do if you suspect there may be fire on the other side of a door:

  1. Test the temperature of the door.
    Run the backs of your hands across the top of the door and down the sides. If it’s not hot, check the handle, again with the back of your hand. (Why not the palm? Because if anything you touch is hot, you’re probably going to want to be using that hand to get yourself out of the room by the other exit. Having burned the palm will make that a substantially less enjoyable experience.)
    If the door is hot, don’t open it.
  2. Check for smoke outside.
    If the door opens toward you, kneel beside it with the knee away from the door. Open it against the still-planted near foot. Look up at the crack for a few seconds. If smoke is pouring in, close the door and go out your alternative exit.
    If the opens away from you, crouch down on the wall next to the doorframe (in other words, not next to the door) and open it a few inches. Again, watch the top of the opening for smoke. If you see any, then that’s a place you don’t want to go. Close the door and find another way.
  3. Only if there was no heat and no smoke should you open the door and go through.

Before you enter a space, check the door. When you leave a space, close the door behind you.

Martin and I didn’t try evacuating our room by the windows, but we ran the kids through the process of leaving through theirs. It wasn’t easy, since we all sleep one floor up (here’s a picture of the back of our house, where the children’s rooms are). One of the kids has a balcony, and can just climb over it and drop to the plastic storage chest beneath. But the other has to go out a window, across to the balcony railing, then hang and drop. Even with parental help, it’s a scary thing to do.

We’ve already discussed meeting points outside the house, and who stays put (children) versus who travels to find the family (adults).

Then we went into the backyard and learned about our household fire equipment.

We have three fire blankets in the house, one for each floor. Fire blankets are useful for smothering clothing fires and small, localized flames; they buy escape-and-call-the-fire-department time. We also have a foam fire extinguisher on the ground floor, suitable for type A (wood, paper, cloth, etc) and B (flammable liquids) fires. Because the foam is water-based, it is not suitable for grease fires. I’ve trained with a CO2 extinguisher and a fire blanket, but Martin had never used either.

I filled a bread loaf tin with kindling and used barbecue lighter fluid to set it on fire. We all practiced putting it out with a fire blanket: how to hold the blanket to protect our hands, using the blanket to protect our bodies while approaching the fire, and smothering the flames. Easy. I also demonstrated how to extinguish a fire with a newspaper, because although a fire blanket is useful, it is not the only way to remove oxygen from a fire.

The kids tried it too, though they know that they are not to try to fight fires themselves. (I would not have allowed less cautious or sensible children to try out the fire blankets, because a little learning can be a dangerous thing.)

Then I explained how to use a foam fire extinguisher on the re-ignited loaf pan. Martin tried it out with a second extinguisher bought for the purpose. It wasn’t as dramatic as my CO2 extinguisher training on the course, but it was useful nonetheless. Then we let the kids try squirting the rest of the foam out. (They are very clear on the idea that fire extinguishers are not toys and must not be let off without adult permission.)

We still have a few outstanding actions after today’s activities:

  1. Fit the bedrooms with CO/smoke alarms. They’re cheaper online, so we want to order them rather than buying them from the hardware store.
  2. Wall-mount the fire blankets
  3. Find out where to get the second foam extinguisher recharged. It will live in the attic with the tumble dryer afterwards.
  4. Put blankets, coats and spare shoes in the garden shed in case we have to evacuate in the winter

The chances that we will need to use anything we learned today are slight. But I’m glad we took the time to do it. Tonight, as a reward, we’re toasting marshmallows. Because rapid oxidation has its value in small doses, you know?

This post is for entertainment only. I am not a fire safety expert, and nothing in this post should be taken as definitive. Consult your local fire department for further information on fire safety, family fire drills, and the use of fire fighting equipment in the home.

November 01, 2011
A Litany for November
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:42 AM * 73 comments

I always think the Feast of All Saints is the perfect day to start NaNoWriMo. Because saints are the guys who’ve arrived, the ones who started just like everyone else and made it big. They’re the ones to look to for inspiration, whose fellowship it is the goal to join.

Isaac Asimov of the Sense of Wonder, inspire us
Arthur C. Clarke of Hopeful Futures, inspire us
Robert A. Heinlein of the Self-Reliant Heroes, inspire us
Ursula K. Le Guin of the Quiet Truths, inspire us
Roger Zelazny of the Myth Made Real, inspire us
H.P. Lovecraft of the Lurking Dread, inspire us
Neil Gaiman, whose gods walk among us, inspire us

(And tomorrow is the Feast of All Souls, the day to meditate upon readers.)

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Even larger type, with serifs

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