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There is very little content that I place under lock on this journal. And given that I've moved most of my ephemeral everyday chit-chat over to Facebook, the things I post here are mostly intended to be public discussions, ruminations, research, project diaries, and entertainments.

With my novel out and as I'm using this blog as a place to discuss writing issues, I expect to have a lot more "drive-by" traffic. Therefore as an experiment I have removed restrictions on comments. If I start getting large quantities of spam, I may tighten up again. And I reserve the right to curate my comment threads as I see fit.

Religion and Magic in the World of Alpennia

One of the more interesting themes in reviews of Daughter of Mystery is along the lines of how “it’s very unusual in have magic coexist so intimately with Christianity, and also to write protagonists who are quietly and earnestly devout without ulterior motives.” And: “perhaps the most splendid thing is the way the author handles religion.” Now some writers of historically-based fiction might be startled at the thought that characters who are “quietly and earnestly devout” are unusual. Me? I’m tickled to death when I get comments like that because getting the religion “right” is one of the things I’m most proud of. You see, I’m an atheist (and raised as a Quaker), so the traditional steeped-in-everyday-life Catholic religion of my characters is a decidedly alien setting for me. Based on comments and questions regarding the way religion and magic are handled in Daughter of Mystery, it seemed people might be interested in a blog on the topic. So I’m going to cover three things. Why did I chose to have my characters relate to their religion in the way I did? How did I come to develop the form of magic that exists in the world of Alpennia? And what is the relationship between magic and religion in that world?

To some extent it was a no-brainer that my characters were going to be sincere believers in the religion they were raised in. My protagonists were unusual in certain very specific ways within their culture, but I wanted them to be “ordinary” in most other ways. They aren’t me and there’s nothing in their backgrounds that would specifically have spurred them to be skeptics or non-believers. Now this isn’t saying that Alpennia has no skeptics! In the scenes with the student mystery guild that Margerit joins, we find that Morpirt Albin has doubts about the divine nature of mysteries. There are more like him; we’re in the middle of the Enlightenment, after all. But beyond simply being “ordinary” in her religious devotion, the way I interpret Margerit Sovitre’s belief is that her mystical experiences deepen her faith rather than eroding it. After all, she communes with the saints and they grant her visions and miracles! Why would she have any doubts?

Some readers have also speculated on the absence of any mention of religious conflicts or of any Protestant sects in Daughter of Mystery. This wasn’t meant to be a meaningful omission. The story is, in many ways, a very inward-looking one: a tale of small domestic concerns within a small portion of society in a small country of relatively homogeneous culture. And because I chose to write it using an extremely tight point-of-view, there isn’t a great deal of mention of matters that don’t impinge on the two protagonists’ immediate concerns. Rest assured that, except for the physical presence of the imaginary country of Alpennia, and except for the existence of magic, the world of the setting is extremely like our own. (More on this later.) We’ll get a bit more religious diversity in the sequel, The Mystic Marriage, when a prominent minor character is Jewish and the differences between how various religions interact with magic is at least of passing concern for the primary characters. We’ll also see more about how magic works outside a religious context in the specific case of the magical aspects (though they don’t call them that!) of alchemy.

Before talking about how magic works within the story setting (both how the characters think it works and how I understand it to work), I thought it would be interesting to walk through the development of how I added magic into the plot. Writing Daughter of Mystery was something of a “process experiment” for me in many ways. One of those ways was that I had absolutely no idea where the plot was going to go when I started writing. So I thought it would be amusing to keep a “plot development diary” at the beginning to track how elements and characters got added and how my original ideas changed as the story evolved.

At this remove, I’m not exactly sure when I first started working on the story, but my first dated plot-diary notes are dated at the beginning of December 2007 and I believe I had seriously started working on it only a few weeks before that. The initial concept and characters had no elements of magic or prominent religious aspects at all, but by 12/1/2007 I’d come up with the idea that Margerit would get into trouble in Rotenek by dabbling in some sort of ceremonial magic or alchemical work that had specifically been designed as “bait” to interest her and would be sprung as a trap.

In my notes dated 12/4/2007 (when I’d written up to around chapter 10 or so) I noted in the plot-diary: I need to develop the "fantasy" aspects of the world. My current ideas draw from historical supernatural practices except that in this world "stuff works". Examples would be alchemy (transmutation, humors, sympathetic magic, the mystic marriage?[*]), the invocation of saints, angels (and demons) with regularly observable and supernatural consequences in the physical world (misc. charms, protections, interventions in natural law, etc.). Overall, the basic principle is "stuff works", where knowledge and practice are the key factors with some smaller element of chance and talent. I don't want the supernatural effects to seem mechanical and there isn't any clear physical manifestation of the supernatural creatures being invoked, but the results should be systematic, not attributable to chance, and logically related to the method of invocation.

[*] Note that I had absolutely no ideas for doing a second book at this point, much less that it would focus on alchemy and be titled The Mystic Marriage. Such are the seeds planted!

In general, my own philosophy tends to lead me to create magical systems that are very mechanical. (My invention of “the mechanistic heresy” was something of self-mockery.) I didn’t want the magic to be simply an alternate technology, and I didn’t want it to be something that had such significant and predictable effects that it would substantially alter the course of history. I wanted Alpennia’s history to be recognizable as our own. (This is touched on when the characters discuss the difficulties of using the mysteries for practical purposes, given that the effects can often be difficult to distinguish from lucky chance and given that the ability to perform “effective mysteries” and the ability to tell that a mystery has been effective rarely occur in the same person. Toss in the confounding effects of deliberate fraud and a formal aversion to approaching the mysteries scientifically and you end up with a system where the existence of magic may have very little impact on the larger course of history.)

At some later time I came back and inserted the following commentary: At this point my idea is that Margerit only gets involved in magic via her studies. I also have the notion that magic will be involved in the resolution of how M&B disprove the charge of treason, but I didn’t work out the details for quite some time. And about a week later I added a whole list of plot and character elements that had shifted how I understood the earlier chapters, including: Work out the irrealis parts of the magic/religion in more detail. Since this will be critical to the plot, it needs to be introduced and set up properly.

When I was first working on Daughter of Mystery, I would spend a few months writing a little every day and then something would disrupt my routine and I’d let it sit for months at a time. The next relevant entry in my plot-diary comes almost a year later on 10/28/2008 when I jotted down what I was thinking of when I came up with the book’s title: Also, I think I've come up with a better working title: Mystery's Daughter (or maybe Daughter of Mystery). I wanted something that would refer ambiguously to both M and B, and hit on the idea of the "Saints' Mysteries" being the thaumaturgical system associated with doing magic via invoking the saints. So as a thaumaturgist, Marguerite is a daughter of the saints' mysteries, but in the more ordinary sense, Barbara is the daughter of a mystery. (A key “aha!” moment was when I tracked down the etymologies of both senses of the word “mystery”.)

So at that point I’d developed the idea that I was working specifically with “miracles of the saints” and something of a formalized hybrid of folk-magic and saints’ cults that paralleled formal ecclesiastical ceremonies but “belonged” to lay people in some essential way. Everyone participated in ceremonial “mysteries” as a part of everyday religious devotion but that for some people those ceremonies were conduits for genuine acts of causation. Part of my inspiration for the lay mystery guilds came from the way that medieval craft guilds evolved into social and benevolent organizations, and I could easily see that in the world of Alpennia such organizations might well evolve into social clubs that organized around the celebration of mysteries. By 11/11/2009 my notes indicate that I was focusing on Margerit’s experiments being a more activist, hazardous approach to the Mysteries. That is, that she puts herself in peril not simply by her ability to perceive the workings of the mysteries but by actively experimenting with developing and changing them for her own purposes.

So that covers how my ideas of the magic developed. But how do the inhabitants of the story understand magic? Firstly, they don’t think of it as “magic” at all. There are certain “high” religious practices that have “active consequences” and there are many more folk-religious practices that either have or are believed to have “active consequences” and that are at least formally distinct in peoples minds from what they would consider “sorcery” or “witchcraft” or some other category that implies heretical practices. Many of these practices are formally accepted as at least quasi-orthodox in the world of Alpennia specifically because of the place of high ritual thaumaturgical practices to which they can be connected.

So if these magical “mysteries” are specifically associated in Alpennia with cults of the saints, what’s going on in Protestant lands? That will get touched on a bit in The Mystic Marriage and moreso in later books. The short version is that, as part of the Reformation, the mysteries of the saints were rejected by Protestant movements as “Popish nonsense” ... but when you have people running around with an innate ability to “make things happen” or to be able to tell when other people are “making things happen”, it’s going to come out in some fashion. It just may not be labeled “religion”. I still have some thinking to do on exactly how that will manifest, but there are a lot of possibilities. And, of course, there are more religions in the world than the various Christian sects. We may well get a chance to see how magic comes out in a Jewish context eventually, and who knows what else.

And then we get into the interesting case of alchemy (which I’ve done a lot of thinking on for Book 2) and similar activities. Because although alchemy in the world of Alpennia uses exactly the same underlying “magical” power as the mysteries do, it is perceived by its practitioners as a non-religious activity, indeed as a science. The difference between Alpennia’s alchemy and Alpennia’s “real science” is that alchemy harnesses the available non-causative energy using symbolism and ritual, but it isn’t treated as religious ritual (and is therefore subject to a certain amount of suspicion and scrutiny). It would have been very easy for me to conceive of the idea that the essential element in any sort of “magic” in my world is the innate ability of the practitioner. (Remember what I said about defaulting to a mechanistic view of magic?) And I’ve clearly set up a system where innate ability is important. But I decided that I wanted more ambiguity in my world. I wanted it to be not entirely clear whether the Mechanists were right and -- given the right people with the right innate abilities -- you could create entirely predictable and reliable miracles at will. The magical elements in alchemy manifest in the ability to drive chemical and physical reactions (ones that are physically possible in our world) under conditions where they would not naturally occur. So for example, it is possible to create synthetic gemstones using alchemy that would ordinarily require temperatures, pressures, timeframes, and non-reactive containers not available to the ordinary experimenter. (Although I was delighted to discover that the first real-world synthetic gemstones were created right around the time my novels are set.) And these alchemical reactions can be produced by performing your reactions according to the correct astrological alignments and using the proper symbolism in the performance of the preparations. And -- as I indicate in passing -- as long as the “recipe” is performed correctly, the practitioner need not have any special magical sensitivity to be successful, though magical sensitivity is immensely helpful in identifying and devising those recipes.

So do the saints actually grant miracles if asked properly? Does it matter that the person petitioning the saints have some innate characteristic that makes their prayers more special? Or is there a neutral force in the world that some people have the ability to wield? These are the questions that the great philosophers like Fortunatus, Tanfrit, and Gaudericus have pondered and argued at length. And if they cannot come to a definite conclusion on the matter, how can I?

Fitbit Review: follow-up

Interestingly, according to the Fitbit, I take more steps with my left leg than with my right. Today I went back to wearing the device on my ankle, but I rigged it up to tie with a ribbon so I could wear it on my (preferred) left ankle. Same basic routine as the first two days of wearing it, but at the point when I got home (at which point the day's activities diverged) it had recorded 1000 steps more than it did at that point the day I wore it on the right ankle. Not sure what to think about that.

One Lucky Customer Will Win...

...a choice of blog topic. I will reward my 100th Twitter follower (@heatherosejones) with the right to request a blog topic. (Since I tweet primarily on writing/publishing-related topics, the implication is that the request will be in that realm.) I'm up to 95 at the moment.


The last of the Kalamazoo books from last year, plus as many as I can get through of books from my trip to NYC and Darkovercon in November. Will I finish them all? Stay tuned for the exciting details!

Even though my Welsh research is far less active these days than it once was, there's a reflex to buy Welsh history books that I can't quite resist. And one of these days I'll get back to writing my Welsh historic romances so they'll all be quite practical, right?

Charles-Edwards, T.M. 2013. Wales and the Britons 350-1064. Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-821731-2

Every generation of historians turns out a new set of comprehensive histories of whatever topics are deemed worth the effort. It's nice that Wales is included in that effort. The pre-Norman period is one that often gets glossed over briefly so it's nice to find such a thick tome focusing entirely on this era. I probably didn't need this book, but if I ever do write within this era (and at least one of my trunk novels falls within it) I'll be glad to have it.

Griffiths, R. A. and P. R. Schofield, eds. 2011. Wales and the Welsh in the Middle Ages: Essays presented to J. Beverley Smith. University of Wales Press, Cardiff. ISBN 978-0-7083-2446-2

The festschrift format can result in a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes the contributors write specifically on topics related to the honoree's interests, sometimes they contribute whatever they have lying around that didn't have a home yet. This collection falls in the former category with articles focusing on social and socio-political aspects of medieval Welsh history. Topics of particular interest to me include the intersection of Welsh and English law in the courts and the evidence for family structures found in 13-14th c. rental documents.

Fulton, Helen, ed. 2012. Urban Culture in Medieval Wales. University of Wales Press, Cardiff. ISBn 978-0-7083-2351-9

Another collection of articles, on a much more focused topic this time. Histories often focus strongly on military and elite culture, and in Wales the next level of focus tends to be on agricultural society and the social structures that supported it. Urban culture -- and especially with a focus on ethnically Welsh residents -- tends to come far down the list. So an entire collection of papers on this topic fills a major gap. One specific paper caught my eye due to an intersection with one of my other major historic interests: Deborah Youngs' "The Townswomen of Wales: Singlewomen, Work and Service, c. 1300-c.1550."

Becker, Audry L. and Kristin Noone. 2011. Welsh Mythology and Folklore in Popular Culture: Essays on Adaptations in Literature, Film, Television and Digital Media. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson. ISBN 978-0-7864-6170-7

(This one actually migrated to the head of my bed for further reading, back when I started doing the reviews.) This is published as part of the "Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy" series so it shouldn't be a surprise to find a specific focus on the uses of medieval Welsh literature in modern SSF, especially Evangeline Walton's re-imagining of the Four Branches (3 articles) and the multiply-filtered Disney The Black Cauldron based on Lloyd Alexander's very loose … well, I wouldn't even really call it an "interpretation", let's say his books very loosely inspired by the same. Also covered are Welsh themes in Torchwood, Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle (and the Miyazaki film treatment of it), and the music of Heather Dale.

And that concludes the Kalamazoo books. On to the November books!

Peck, Amelia, ed. 2013. Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ISBN 978-0-300-19698-6

This is the catalog for an exhibition I was able to see while in NYC last November. One might expect a large part of the exhibit to focus on themes of Orientalism and exoticism and the appropriation of textiles (or textile production industries) and artistic styles from colonial regions by Western fashion centers. But one of the things that struck me (beyond and in addition to this) was the incredible amount of cross-pollenation, adoption, and adaptation of fabrics and styles between non-Western cultures that participated in the massive web of international textile trade. Also the ways in which local cultures adapted and interpreted Western clothing styles or ornamentation techniques for their own purposes. I'm not meaning to diminish the ways in which colonialism drove and dominated the trade under study here, but the exhibit shows how much more complex the everyday details were. Also: lots of oohing and ahing and gorgeous clothing.

le Bourhis, Katell, ed. 1989. The Age of Napoleon Costume from Revolution to Empire: 1789-1815. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ISBN 0-87099-571-5

We're back to books purchased as research materials for the Alpennian books. Technically this book cuts off right before my stories begin, but it's generally accounted the best source on the era it covers, and that era forms enough of a foundation for Alpennian costume at the beginning of my series that I couldn't pass it up.

Well, I'd hoped to get through a few more, but it's bed time. One more session should do it.
More books bought at Kalamazoo last year. I really do need to rein in my purchasing.

Owen-Crocker, Gale, Elizabeth Coatsworth & Maria Hayward eds. 2012. Encyclopedia of Dress and Textiles in the British Isles c. 450-1450. Brill, Leiden. ISBN 978-90-04-124356

OK, so frankly, this is an "I have more money than sense" purchase because reference works of this sort were always intended for libraries, not for private individuals. Encyclopedic in structure, there are entries for everything from "Accessories" (actually a cross-reference to various types) to "York". Each entry lists relevant primary sources and references. It's hard to evaluation the scope of coverage without using it to try to look up a variety of specific topics. Maybe I just have odd tastes, but the first few random items I tried to look up don't seem to be covered. (For example, there's an entry for "Bologna cope" but not for "breeches".) But there's a wealth of detail and a lot of interesting trivia. (Did you know that "harlot" was a name of a type of hose?)

Gleba, Margarita & Ulla Mannering, eds. 2012. Textiles and Textile Production in Europe: From Prehistory to AD 400. Oxbow Books, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-84217-463-0

So as you already know, I'm a total sucker for textile archaeology publications. This is a massive, profusely-illustrated work surveying the state of knowledge about textile production, based largely on physical finds, organized geographically and by era. Lots of pictures of surviving textiles with figures clarifying structure or showing production methods. The book has 470 pages and most pages have one or more photos or diagrams. References to specific finds are representative rather than exhaustive, but there were any number of sites and artifacts I hadn't run across before, alongside a number of old friends. Like most of the larger reference books, this isn't aimed at the average book-buyer, but if (like me) you really get into the whole surviving textile finds thing, you might check it out.

Hayward, Maria & Philip Ward, eds. 2012. The Inventory of King Henry VIII - Volume II Textiles and Dress. Harvey Miller Publishers for The Society of Antiquaries of London. ISBN 978-1-905375-42-4

This is the second book in a massive series detailing and analyzing the inventories of Henry VIII's possessions at the time of this death. (Vol. I, the transcript, was published in 1998 and two more volumes are forthcoming, covering military equipment and "decorative args and everyday objects".) This work not only presents a thematic treatment of the textile-related objects in the inventory, but includes pictures or drawings either of the objects themselves (if they survive) or of similar ones. Chapters cover: tapestries, clothing, tents, carpets and table coverings, embroideries, table and bed linens, economics and luxury textiles, ecclesiastical items, and furs. The serious researcher will, of course, want to use this in combination with the full inventory text. I'm not that serious; I just want to look at the pretty pictures. (Ok, so that's not quite true.) This is for the serious Henrician completest or for people like me who just like buying books about historic textiles.

Postles, Dave. 2007. The North through its Names: A Phenomenology of Medieval and Early-modern Northern England. (English Surnames Society Volume 8) Oxbow Books, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-84217-176-9

Aspects of personal names that are specific to, or characteristic of, the north of England. You can tell I'm getting sleepy because the reviews are getting shorter.

Davidson, Clifford. 2001. Gesture in Medieval Drama and Art. Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University. ISBN 1-58044-029-0

OK, you're going to laugh, but once again I picked this up as background research for my fiction writing. Not because I plan to write about medieval drama, but because I pay a lot of attention to characters' body language and gestural expression. And understanding what gestures were used for what communicative purposes gives me a window into how to develop characterization through (described) gesture that situates medieval characters into their setting. (One of these days when I get back to writing actual medieval novels.) The data comes from stage directions in the medieval plays as well as artistic depictions of similar scenes/events.
I started today's housecleaning by attaching the go-backs in the library and it occurred to me that if I want to get all of last year's Kalamazoo haul reviewed before the conference rolls around again, I'd better dig in! And so we continue:

Skemer, Don C. 2006. Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages. The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park. ISBN 0-271-02723-1

If you've read my novel Daughter of Mystery then you'll know why I'm buying books on the history of magic and folk religion in Europe. (If you haven't read it, go do so … I'll wait.) While the scope of this book falls before the setting of my novels (at least the primary series -- I do plan a medieval one at some point), the magical practices are grounded in earlier practices. I'm primarily looking for inspirations for describing the paraphernalia around both the "high" and "low" versions of magic in my fiction. Skemer's work covers both the religious environment in which these amulets were produced but the purposes and expected benefits and a great many details on the textual content and the ways in which the amulets were produced and used. I haven't actually had a chance to read it through in detail yet (isn't that always the case?) but expect to cherry-pick details in the future.

Kieckhefer, Richard. 2000. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-521-78576-1

Picked up for similar reasons as the above. A much broader review and more readable. Covers the major cultural contributions to medieval traditions of magic as well as a chapter on legal issues around condemnation and prosecution. Also covers magic in literature and fraudulent magic.

Dawson, Thomas (ed. by Maggie Black). 1996. The Good Housewife's Jewel. Southover Press, Lewes. ISBN 1-870962-12-5

I already had a facsimile copy of this 1596 English cookbook (from the English Experience series) but this is definitely more readable. Also: completist here! It's one of those small all-in-one books that covers menus, recipes, animal husbandry, and everyday healthcare.

Currie, Elizabeth. 2006. Inside the Renaissance House. V&A Publications, London. ISBN 1-85177-490-4

Just a pretty little coffee-table book, but I'm a sucker for picture-heavy books showing interiors and everyday scenes. Lots of kitchen and dining scenes, plus chapters on bedrooms and studies. If you already have the more massive "At Home in Renaissance Italy", then there's no need to pick this book up … but I did anyway.

Porter, Pamela. 2003. Courtly Love in Medieval Manuscripts. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. ISBN 0-8020-8599-7

This is part of the series of booklets from University of Toronto Press surveying various visual themes in medieval art. While I have a general use for thematic collections of medieval art, I was also specifically interested in the iconography of how PDAs were represented (so that when my medieval fictional characters make out, they can do it in authentic ways).

Walker-Meikle, Kathleen. 2011. Medieval Cats. The British Library, London. ISBN 978-0-7123-5818-7

The back cover notes that the author "completed her PhD … on late-medieval pet keeping." This is a small glossy collection of images of cats in medieval manuscripts and art, with brief accompanying text providing context both for the specific images and the place of cats in medieval society. Many artistic cats doing cat-like things such as playing with the dangling spindle of a woman trying to spin, licking its butt with its legs splayed in all directions, reaching through the bars of a bird-cage, and of course endless scenes of mousing.

Netherton, Robin & Gale R. Owen-Crocker eds. 2013. Medieval Clothing and Textiles 9. The Boydell Press, Rochester. ISBN 978-1-84383-856-2

If you know about this journal series, then you don't need me to tell you why I bought it or why you might want to. For the rest of you, this is an annual volume packed full of articles and reviews on topics related in some way to clothing, fashion, textiles, textile techniques, depictions of all of the above, economic issues relating to the above, etc. etc. Particular articles that catch my eye on leafing through include ones on dagged clothing and painted cloth hangings.

Klosowska, Anna. 2005. Queer Love in the Middle Ages. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 1-4039-6342-8

As someone whose interest in non-majority sexualities in history is both personal and practical, I've become somewhat leery of conference sessions and book titles that feature the word "queer" prominently. Too often it ends up being, "If I use my imagination and squint sideways, you could interpret this Thing in other ways." But Palgrave is an outstanding promoter of good scholarship in the history of homosexuality, so I'm always willing to give their publications a closer look. While this book doesn't fall on the side of "stretching the interpretation to the breaking point" neither does it really fall on the "discovering and interpreting interesting new evidence" side. The author is applying several French theoretical approaches (there's another thing that makes me leery: "French theory") to several of the popular works of the medieval romance canon to identify homoerotic motifs and themes. I might have given the book a pass on the basis of being too much on the lit-crit side for me except that one of the main texts she analyzes is Yde and Olive which is one of my major medieval romance fixations. (Some day I will write my own novelization of the story … and make it come out right in the end, dammit!)

Wright, Monica L. 2009. Weaving Narrative: Clothing in Twelfth-Century French Romance. THe Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park. ISBN 978-0-271-03566-6

As people may know, my historic clothing research interests tend to fall on the practical side and I'm interested in literary sources mostly for what they may be able to tell us about what real people were wearing. But I'll always be willing to consider an exception for books written by people I know. This is an interdisciplinary look at the wealth of clothing descriptions in French romances, investigating what part clothing played in the structure of the stories and how the clothes worked as characterization.

That's it for this session.

Fitbit Review - Part 2

So as predicted, wearing the Fitbit on my wrist (as intended) rather than the ankle resulted in a noticeably lower step-log for the exact same activities. I can't do an exact comparison because I didn't track exact intermediate numbers during the day, But by the time I got home, the step-count was approximately 2000 lower than yesterday's. (Approx. 10,000 yesterday, at that point, approx. 8,000 today.) Now my overall day's total ended up higher today because yesterday when I got home and did yard work, I was running the weed-whacker in the back yard with involved a lot of planting my feet and moving the arms back and forth (less foot movement) whereas today I was raking up the cut grass/weeds which involved a lot of hand movement (also more foot movement but remember I have the Fitbit on the wrist this time). And I also went out to see a movie after that, so more walking. But as predicted, the specific vigorous activities that I do get under-counted based on wrist movement. So for maximal tracking, I should wear it on the ankle during the day but on the wrist when I get home (or for dragonboat practice!).This suits me since I'm disinclined to view the device as a desirable fashion statement. But I'll probably come up with some alternate method of fastening it on my ankle because even the loosest setting on my skinnier ankle is a little tight.

At any rate, an amusing gadget. It will make the corporate fitness program happy. And it's an easy way to get a relative read on my day-to-day activity. I'd be happier if it gave more accurate metrics. Note that the default step-goal is 10,000 per day and I manage that only by dint of putting in at least 80 minutes of vigorous exercise.

Gadget Review: Fitbit "Flex"

It's probably premature to do a review of a product I only started using today, but this will probably be added to.

I'd been looking vaguely at various "fitness tracker" devices that sync to your smartphone but I hadn't yet found a sales person who actually knew the mechanics of how the things worked and I was having a hard time translating the somewhat grandiose claims ("tracks how many calories you burn", "analyzes your sleep patterns") with the lack of any obvious mechanism for true biometrics (e.g., heart rate, brainwaves). And, in fact, as far as I can tell, the vast majority of entry-level devices rely solely on accelerometers. They track how and how often you wave them around due to their positioning on some part of your anatomy.

So I hadn't yet found the information and/or features I wanted in order to be willing to shell out the non-trivial cost … until my employer decided that this year's inducement to participate in their "healthy living" program was a free Fitbit device. Well, "free" -- that's worth the experiment. So I signed up and selected the "Flex" which is the wristband style. Being the perverse sort of person that I am, my first day's experiment involved putting it on my ankle instead. (Since it's designed for a wrist, it only fits on my right ankle -- the one where the sciatica has caused enough muscle wasting at the ankle to slim it down sufficiently.) My theory is that since -- as I've determined -- the device relies solely on an accelerometer, it may measure rather differently when tracking foot movements than hand movements. And since my major exercises (bicycling and elliptical) involve functionally immobile wrists, I expect that tomorrow's experiment -- with essentially identical activity but the band on the wrist -- will show substantially lower numbers.

The nature of the measurement also ensures that vigorous exercises that don't involve high-impact don't count as "very active" for the devices metrics. (The FAQ outright states, "your active minute count will be lower for activities that are not primarily step-based, such as weight lifting, cycling, and rowing." Hmm, weight lifting (check), cycling (check), and rowing (check). Also, I would add, elliptical (check). No doubt due to the smooth motion. In other words, "If you do an activity that will fuck up your knees, then we'll give you extra points, but this actually has nothing to do with intensity of effort." So my day included at least 40 minutes of vigorous cycling and slightly less than 40 minutes of vigorous elliptical but my Fitbit only credits me with 11 "very active" minutes.

On the other hand, the device does seem to count all my leg movements as actual steps (although it only counts steps by the leg it's attached to -- as I assume it only counts as a "step" the motion of the wrist it's attached to). I know this because the elliptical counts both feet and gives me my full 5000+ steps for my workout but in the same time the Fitbit only credited me with ca. 2500. OK, fine, it's a relative measurement. But it isn't actually counting "steps".

The "sleep tracking" is similarly less useful than the hype. You start tracking your sleep by tapping on the device to say "start sleep tracking" and you stop by tapping again to go out of sleep mode. So let's say I'm having bouts of insomnia and repeated waking. I will be able to track exactly how much sleep I actually get because at that point when I finally manage to drop off … I will wake up sufficiently to tap the device, ensuring that I will then lie awake for at least another half hour. Or am I missing something? (It does track movements during sleep, so I guess tossing and turning will be tracked.)

So let's see what Fitbit claims today's numbers are. I took 11,100 steps, covered 4.63 miles, had 11 "very active" minutes, and burned 1810 calories (they include basal metabolism in this). I'll accept their "step" count with the above caveat, but bicycling and elliptical combined I know totals over 13 miles (so they're calculating how far I would have gotten if I low-impact walked 11,100 steps). And as noted I actually had more like 80 "very active" minutes. Based on calorie guides for specific activities, based on specific effort levels, my high-impact activities estimate out at about 1100 calories (not including low-impact stuff and basal metabolism). And I predict that tomorrow's tracking (on the wrist) will even more drastically under-report my activity.

So unless your primary exercise activity is running, don't count on a Fitbit to track your actual exercise efforts. But if you calibrate it against whatever your target activity routine is, it may be useful for tracking whether you hit that target.

Whan That Aprille Day

In honor of @LeVotreGC's twitter movement #whanthataprilleday (posts in ancient or medieval languages), I offer a translation** into Medieval Welsh of the opening paragraph of my Mabinogi-pastiche lesbian romance story Hoywferch:

Elin verch Gwir Goch oed yn arglwydes ar Cantref Madruniawn. A threigylgweith dyvot yn y medwl vynet y hela. Ac wrth dilyt y cwn, hi a glywei llef gwylan. Ac edrych i fyny arni yn troi, a synnu wrthi. A’y theyrnas ymhell o’r mor. Ac yna y gelwi i gof ar y dywot y chwaervaeth Morvyth pan ymadael ar lan Caer Alarch: Os clywhych gwylan yn wylo, sef minnau yn wylo amdanat. A thrannoeth cyvodi a oruc ac ymadael a’y theulu a’y niver a’y chynghorwyr, a marchogaeth a oruc tra doeth i’r mor.

**Since I did the entire translation after midnight, which is well past my bedtime, I beg indulgence for any stylistic irregularities. I'll go over it again later.


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April 2014


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