An Open Letter To The Manufacturers of the Spice Melange

Dear CHOAM Company,

I would like to take the time to complain about your spice “MELANGE (a genuine Arrakis product!) It is my opinion that not only is your overhyped and overpriced, but is deceptive and dangerous as well. My own family’s case will prove illustrative.

My wife came home with a jar of melange about six months ago, for which she paid the exorbitant price of $575. While the jar was approximately the size of the other jars in our spice rack, we were surprised and dismayed to discover that within the jar stood barely enough melange to be visible, and no, I am afraid that thoughtful as it was, the microtweezers and hufuf oil magnifying lens included was not enough to significantly improve the inconvenience of digging out enough to use in cooking. Which brings me to my second point. Regardless of your advertising copy that promises “a flavor unmatchable in the known Universe,” the overwhelming impression I got from the scent of melange is cinnamon, the best grade of which is easily purchased at about $10 for a full ounce. As to the claim that melange is “never the same taste twice,” it’s rather ridiculous to make the claim when there is not more than one taste in the jar, even for the most artful of cooks.

Finally, I must question the wisdom of allowing — let alone advertising — the fact that melange is an indispensable part of foldspace drives. I can’t think of any other machine additive I would be well-advised to put on my food and consume. Besides the which, ever since we did use melange on our Thanksgiving apple pie, our familial harmony has been shattered. Not only did no one in the family notice the expense and trouble to which we went, but my wife has been going abut murmuring that she thinks I will divorce her when I discover what she really paid for the jar of spice. My high-school age son has decided it is impossible to pass calculus no matter what he does, and the younger children are all complaining about what they are getting for Christmas, and I haven’t even finished my shopping yet. Plus ever since that meal they youngest one has seemed to be in several places at once.  If the doctor says that’s more than the fact that he’s seven years old, you may advise your legal department that they will be hearing from my lawyers.

Sincerely,

Malcolm Idaho
Duchy of Grumman

memo: write the Ix division about eye treatments, re: younger brother DI

 

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Video Game Rant: Faster Than Gossip

I really like 4X Games. My favorites, back in college, were Civilization (yes, I am literally older than Civilization. None of my students get it) and Master Of Orion. Lately, I have been overjoyed to discover Stars In Shadow, which feels like the sequel to Master Of Orion that I always wished had been made and never was. MOO 2 was trying too hard to be Civilization In SPAAAAACE! and MOO 3 is best set on fire and forgotten. But Stars In Shadow has done everything right: Their planetary improvements hit the right balance between monotonous and gimmicky, the ship combat is wonderfully differentiated, with several equally valid styles of play, and the tech tree is interconnected and awesome.

But there is one thing that the game just absolutely falls flat on… the diplomacy.

To be fair, most 4X games handle diplomacy with all the poise and finesse of a drunk Chihuahua. it’s HARD to get AI to simulate negotiation. But the two things that just make me want to punch a fist through the screen are:

  1. The AI Mean Girls Club: No matter what you do in SiS, the AI players know about it. Instantly. And react to it. Instantly. Also, they have an eidetic memory for all your slights. So that means that if I am, say, playing the Gremak, the interstellar slavers, and I enslave members of a race? Everyone knows about it. And everyone cares. I perform experiments on the slaves? That’s instantly known and remembered, too. In fact, races I don’t even know about will show up holding a grudge a hundred turns later. And that sucks because first, it’s a bait-and-switch: “Hey, PC, your race has this super-cool ability, sort of a balance to other races’ super cool abilities you don’t have! But don’t you dare use it, or you will be permanently at war forever, because everybody will hate you!” But it’s not just that: the races will have bad impressions of me because “We heard how you treated the innocent Ashdar!” Which leads to the more important point, that it’s not reciprocal. No one comes to me and says, “Hey just so you know, those evil Orthin have attacked two other races because they noticed that they had inferior navies and thought it would be fun!” No, I get to float in blissful ignorance.
  2. I Don’t Get To Speak The Language: The AI almost always, in these games, has options unavailable to the PC. So I’m constantly getting messages like: “You have a world that is rightfully ours. Return it, and we will stop hating you,” Or, “Sever the diplomatic relations you’ve spent  lot of time forging with our enemies, and remember if you don’t we will dislike you. A lot.” Or, “Give us money and we won’t attack.”
    Meanwhile, I don’t get any of these choices. I can pretty much say, “Let’s have formal relations, let’s have a trade/research treaty, let’s have an open ports treaty/alliance, or let’s have a war.” That’s it. I feel like I am constantly the foreign exchange student just arrived to a gaming party, and I know a third of the language and a quarter of the rules.

I mean, some of these are admittedly hard to code, but hell, the option to demand tribute from enemies was included in Civ I for crying out loud!

You know, it’s still an awesome game. But it really should be better.

Random Stupid Ideas: Rejectomancy Magazine!

Okay, I completely missed yesterday’s blog, because the muse still had not let go of my hair and I was trying to slam out the last 3000 words of an 8000 word story. I finished it this morning, and am now in recovery mode. So here’s Monday’s blog. On Tuesday.

So, have you ever eaten at Ed Debevics? Yeah, it’s that restaurant chain that looks and feels like a fifties diner, only the waitstaff is paid to abuse you by making commentary on your clothes, your face, and your non-participation in singing “YMCA” by the Village People?*

So, I was thinking of this amazing concept, that people would actually pay to be insulted, and how writers are used to being ignored and also see rejection letters — especially personal rejection letters — as good things, and suddenly, an idea was conceived. You ready?

REJECTOMANCY MAGAZINE! The only online magazine in the world where you will submit absolutely knowing that you will be rejected! Takes the guesswork out of it entirely! You send us a story and we GUARANTEE that you will not only GET a rejection, but that it will be a personal and entertaining rejection that WE WILL PUBLISH, telling EVERYONE why we rejected your story!

So not only do we guarantee you a personal response, but WE PUBLISH YOU AS WELL! NOW how does it sound?

All right, so now it’s time for us to answer some questions form our hypothetical audience:

Hypothetical Questioner #1: What, you’re going to reject us, AND publish our story?

A: Hah-hah. No. What are you, stupid? But we will publish the response, maybe with a sentence or two of excerpts designed to highlight your atrocious grammar and impenetrable “style” for the express purposes of a) telling you why we’re not the only people rejecting you and b) making fun of youTechnically, that means that you will have “been published. Sort of.

HQ#2: And you think people will pay for this?

A: Of course not. That would be even harder than getting people to pay money to enter writing contests, which is already stupid and unethical.

HQ#3: But you think people will participate?

A: I don’t know. Possibly. It amounts to offering an honest, albeit tongue-in-cheek and insulting, microcritique. And that’s something a lot of people really do need and want. And the ones who need it most are the least likely to get it. They get form letters.

HQ#4: Well, how do we know you won’t just read the first page and reject us based on that?

A: Um, we absolutely will do that. Do you think pro magazines do differently? The difference is that instead of publishing stories we like, we’ll shred the whole manuscript of those.

HQ#5: What if I send you a story that is so good you just HAVE to publish it?

A: You are EXACTLY the kind of person who needs to submit here, you poor sap.

HQ#6: This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.

A: Maybe. Who wants in?

*Okay, maybe that one was just me.

 

This Blog Pre-empted By The Muse.

You know, I’ll be the first to say that people who spout the line, “I can only write when I’m inspired” are likely wannabe hobbyists who will publish very little. Unless they’ve practiced and honed their craft to the point that they are inspired just about every damn day, in which case, I can only say I envy them.

But don;t ever let anyone tell you that those storms of inspiration don’t happen. They do, and they’re awesome. And I’m in the middle of one now, so I don’t have time to blog. By the way, my Patreon supporters already have a hint of what’s coming. Please consider supporting me if you think it’s worth knowing.

Less Controversial Science-Fiction Rant: The Aliens Who Hate Everything Every Million Years or So.

Am I the only one who is tired of the plot that goes: “Well, you see, a long time ago there was a huge alien race that got pissed off that other people existed, so they decided to wipe everyone back to microbes every now and then.”

Sometimes, there’s a putative cause for it, as in Babylon 5, a series I love. But the whole Vorlon-Shadow war which was like, in the words of John Sheridan, “a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides” was my least favorite part of it. Because it was like watching a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides!! I mean, these were two demi-god-like races! I wanted the war to be over some transcendent disagreement or point of history Not Meant For Man To Know. Instead, it was basically American politics and personal pettiness (but I repeat myself).

David Weber did it a little better with his Achuultani in The Armageddon Inheritance, where the aliens at least have the excuse of being enslaved to an evil AI that can do self-maintenance for millennia.

At its worst, this trope takes the form it did in the game Mass Effect where the ultra-powerful Reapers sterilize the galaxy every million years or so because Reasons.

Folks, this trope is TIRED. And it’s an idiot plot. If the aliens are that powerful, why don’t they just create a fleet of robot ships to go burn the life off every planet that shows cholorophyll? Answer: because DRAMA! They always wait until humanity et al. develop the technology to play David to their Goliath and then get stopped. Also, how is it that the aliens always have this amazing social and political cohesion? They hang around, absolutely loyal to each other and content to do bugger all until the Evolutionary Alarm Clock sounds and reminds them it’s time to get back to slaughtering the Younger Races again.

Enough.

Gaming Rant: The Keymaster and the Gatekeeper Need To Go

Without a doubt, my favorite trope in fantasy RPGs is the cult of the Key and Lock.

This is my name for it, but you all know what I mean: it’s the conceit that the Chosen One, the Dragonslayer, the Bringer Of Destiny who shall Destroy Evil and Restore Peace to The Land, Before Whom None Can Stand…

…cannot break locks, doors, or chests.

I can’t count how many times my quests have been interrupted by the simple presence of a locked chest or a locked door. I can slay dragons, assume a phantom form, produce fire at will, and forge steel all day. But simple wooden planks and iron bars and locks stand in my way as an immovable barrier.

I can just about bet that someone’s going to say it anyway, but just in case it prevents condescending comments: YES, I am aware that game designers have to have a way (or it is most expedient to have a way) to keep players out of, to take just one example, the quests that are led to by other quests. It’s easy to break a game if, for example, you have a player just stumble upon the Elder Scroll before ever learning of the Elder Scroll’s existence. I realize that is a difficult problem to deal with.

The problem isn’t that the barriers exist. The problem is that the barriers take the forms of mundane barriers, when those barriers should be very special, because they guard the way to special places. I can think of any number of ways around this that wouldn’t carry such an overt stench of Because The DM Said So.

  1. Chests and Doors that absolutely needed to stay locked until Quest Time could be made of a magical substance, such as adamantium, utterly resistant to magical/physical damage.
  2. Locks on such Chests and Doors could function only with enchanted keys. You’d really only need to change the dialogue box for this.  Many times, I have come across “This lock can only be opened with a key.” Or “This lock is not pickable.” Replace that with “This lock requires the enchanted key.”
  3. Doors that absolutely must stay locked could function similarly to the Doors Of Moria in The Lord Of The Rings. Until you know the right enchantment or Questing Words, they won’t even appear. Or they will be magical gates. Break them, and you just face a wall.
  4. Chests that need to stay locked could function this way, too: They are invisible until you have discovered how to make them visible. Or appear from the Otherworld. Or they are disguised by a powerful illusion spell as a fire, or a bookcase, or something else that doesn’t look like a chest.
  5. Attempting to break such chests or doors might be known to trigger a one-shot kill, if you’re feeling particularly nasty.
  6. For less game-breaking events, like say, high-power items that you want to delay access to, but aren’t game essential, you could make breaking the chest containing them carry a high chance of destroying the contents.

I realize that to a lot of people, these are nitpicks, and in terms of mechanics, they are. But what makes RPGs great is their immersion. And “You Can’t Because The DM Said So” always breaks immersion. You can’t get away with such things in stories, and you shouldn’t get away with them in games. Not when you don’t have to.

Science-Fiction Rant: Why I Hate Robots

Robots. I have never really understood why there is an obsession with stories about robots. As with fae, I understand the attraction of having robots exist in a story. What I don’t really get is stories about robots. Robots as the reason for the story. Yet many, many people love stories about robots. Isaac Asimov, arguably, built his career on an obsession with robots. I can’t think of any other piece of future technology — with the possible exception of spaceships — that has inspired such a wealth of stories about them. Can you imagine a whole subgenre of SF devoted to, say, laser guns? Or teleporters (apologies to Larry Niven)? Time machines, perhaps, are the most comparable. But the reason I can’t get into them is this: robots are either tools, or they are tools that imitate beings, they are designed to be beings, or they are accidental beings. And in all but one of these cases, stories about them seem to be unnecessary.

Robots Are Tools: These are the robots I have the least objection to in stories, because they’re the most obviously useful. We deal with this type of robot every day, whether we realize it or not. They’re not required to be shaped like humans, and in most cases, they shouldn’t be. But stories about this sort of robot are about as interesting as stories about screwdrivers or reciprocating saws.

Robots Are Tools That Imitate Beings: Now, on a certain level, I can see stories about this working, because it goes to a pretty profound question: is it important that emotions and souls “really” exist? If I create a robot that imitates a being well enough to fool human beings, does it matter that it is just a machine? On the physical level, of course, the answer is no. If I program a robot to feel rage, and then taunt it until it kills me, then I’m just as dead whether it “really” felt the rage or not. And the impact of these questions on humans can be very compelling: how much “love” can you give or receive from a machine?
But on what level can I possibly care about the machine, once it’s established that such a thing is merely an imitation? If that’s all it is, then you might as well try to get me to care about a reciprocating saw that you stuck a smiley face on.

Robots Are Designed To Be Beings: Again, on a certain level, stories like this make sense, especially if they’re focused on the ethics of creating life, and how the created being reacts to its own creation. Some of those are amazing. But ye gods, how many stories in this realm seem to postulate complete idiocy on the part of the creators. You get things like The Matrix Reanimated where humans seem to take joy in creating super-strong, humanoid robots specifically to be abused, complete with pain sensors and the ability to resent being controlled — and then are surprised when the robots revolt. Or more subtly, A.I., where the robot creator creates a human soul in a body that can’t eat, drink or grow. And then we’re supposed to be surprised that he’s created misery? Or Star Wars, where robots apparently have pain sensors for no definable reason. It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of creators who get slaughtered by robots that have been given every reason to slaughter them.

Robots Are Accidental Beings: Now, this is the one type of robot story that I can get behind: the idea that a machine might, given the right self-programming ability, “wake up” to true consciousness, to the surprise of its creators. In this case, it can’t be accused of being an idiot plot, because the humans are, in a sense, exploring the unknown, and they find something unexpected. That’s a reasonable risk. The humans might reasonably not even suspect that the risk exists. Excellent examples of this are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion cycle. But I notice that these stories rarely involve — because they do not need to — actual android-like robots. And why should they? By definition, no one was expecting this robot to take on attributes of human beings. With the exception of a few stories like Terminator 2, where the need for an android-like, accidental intelligence is fairly well justified, most stories of this sort smack of implausibility: “No, we never expected the computer we put in this humanoid body to develop humanoid attributes (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  Either that, or the story smacks more of fantasy than sci-fi, with computer + humanoid body being a voodoo-like spell that magically creates a consciousness because of it looks like a human and talks like a human, it will become a human.

Honestly, one of the best “robot” stories I’ve ever read falls in the cracks of about three of these, which is the excellent “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker, where it’s made pretty deliberately ambiguous whether the titular caregiver-robot is a tool or an accidental being. This was an amazing story that gave a wonderful sense of the alienness of a robot consciousness, while still allowing us to care about it. And, most importantly for this story, a reason that it was a robot and nothing else.

 

Fantasy Rant: Why I Hate Fairies

I was thinking yesterday about why it is that fairy tales repel me.

No, not things like Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. Those stories don’t have fairies in them. I’m not even opposed to those stories that do have fairies in them, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. But for a long time, I’ve found myself turned completely off by stories centered on fairies. Fae. The spirits that show up in rings of mushrooms and live in another dimension where it’s dangerous for mortals to go. But I’ve never figured out why I dislike them so much. Well, aside from the fact that when people write about fairies, one inevitably winds up talking about the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and I just can’t take seriously any story in which the good fairies all remind me of mattress commercials.

And then yesterday I finally figured it out. Basically, fairies, when they’re portrayed authentically (as far as I can tell) are spirits or beings that pretty much just exist to fuck with people. And that’s it. They aren’t ever really portrayed as having any needs, of themselves. They are immortal. The Fairy Kingdom (or whatever we’re calling it this week) provides them with endless food and drink. Their major problem seems to be that they get bored, and when they get bored, they decide to go fuck with each other, or to fuck with people.

Now, the good fairies amuse themselves by occasionally doing helpful things for people, but honestly a lot of their “help” comes with a price, such as Rumplestiltskin might provide. Hey, you didn’t really need that kid, did you? Or they’ll put conditions on their help such that you half kill yourself jumping through hoops to “earn” it. The bad fairies, on the other hand, amuse themselves by straight-up torturing your ass to death.

In other words, fairies are not so much fairies, but trolls. Bored little soulless beings who delight in making misery for people and each other. And the entire human world is their Internet. They dive into it looking for troubled people to torment for shits and giggles. If you engage them, you always get the worst of the bargain. The really bad ones will actively hunt you down and try to drive you to ruin or suicide. And if you dive into their realm, they’ll suck your life away. It’s almost impossible to hurt them. And why do I want to read about miserable creatures like that?

Dear Stabby: The Unthinking Thinking Of Thinking

My patient is intelligent (for a human, anyways) and, on the advice of my brother, I attempted to develop him into an arrogant, spiteful intellectual. The patient is now a middle-aged scientist, and the results so far have been mixed. On the one hand, I have taught him to feel and express a biting contempt for anyone that he determines to be less intelligent, less learned, or have less sophisticated hobbies than him, with the result that he has alienated himself from countless friends and family. I have even gotten him to the point where, when the Enemy suggests that his actions are cruel and petty, he justifies his vicious insults on the grounds that it would ‘violate his integrity’ to let an error pass uncorrected or a foolish comment unanswered. But on the other hand, when he does think of religion and I try to divert him, he directs that same hostility-towards-stupidity at any diversion or irrational argument I offer. As such I find it is nearly impossible for me to forestall his trains of thought, even when they draw him nearer the Enemy. Is there any way for me to stop him from thinking while also maintaining his contempt for the thoughtless?
Best,
Asmodeus in Academia
Dear Asmodeus (incidentally, you’d better not hope Asmodeus finds out you’re using his name as a pseudonym),
Good Lord Below, you’re not trying to use irrational arguments against a proud intellectual, are you? You’re practically shoving your patient into the arms of the Enemy. The longer you try that tactic, the more you run the risk that he will catalogue all the irrationalities, add them up and find that the balance favors the Enemy. But this is basic, and was handled far better by Screwtape in his unfortunately published correspondence that the humans got hold of. If you haven’t read it, you’d better do so immediately.
Diverting him is by far the safer course, but you say that doesn’t work either. Well, then the best course would be that which works on that mindtrap humans call the Internet. Use his pride to draw him down the same, trammeled arguments that have always worked in the past. Show him that he has already disproven all the wild claims about the Enemy. Draw him into admiring his own clarity of thought, his brilliance. Let him come to believe that he alone sees the elegance of these arguments, when they are in fact the same arguments that he absorbed in his college days, in the first flowering of rebellion against any form of authority. In this way, he will no longer be thinking: he will merely be thinking he is thinking, when instead he will be mired in self-congratulation.
In this, you will find that you have the assistance of his ego. Very few humans have the will or the confidence to truly take a fresh look at old problems when new evidence arises.  The consistency of their outlook is a great comfort to them, as it reassures them that they saw early a truth that their fellows come to late, or not at all. This sets them firmly, in their minds, among the ranks of the elite of their wretched race. Therefore, the opposite view, that they have come late to an old truth acknowledged even by the common folk, is almost insupportable. They will grasp at almost anything to avoid that humiliation.
Stabby

Babylon: Law And Empire

In the past ten days, I’ve increased my following on Twitter by a factor of eight, thanks mostly to a couple of awesome fellow writers who have made it their mission to boost other writers’ networking, which is one of my main foci this year. It occurred to me that as a history teacher, MANY people have said to me, “I wish I could take history again; I hated it as a kid, but love it as an adult,” or alternatively, “History was so boring; my teacher was a coach who sat around all day and handed out worksheets.”
So, in recognition of this need, I offered to blog on requested history topics. The first request I got was “Babylon or the Chinese Empire.”
Sigh. To this I can only say, “serves me right for asking,” because these two topics span, conservatively, about 5,000 years of history, concurrently, and trying to cover one, let alone BOTH, in their entirety would reduce the project to a joke. So, thanks very much to the requester: I’m going to talk about ONE aspect of Babylonian history that we all remember from school: Hammurabi’s Code.

I generally taught Hammurabi’s Code in my Honors World History classes for a couple of reasons. It’s pretty much our most influential surviving, readable code of laws. There’s little to compare it to in scope until you get to the laws laid out in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. And as we will see, the contrast between the two is interesting to explore.

Hammurabi himself is an interesting historical figure: he inherited a Babylon that had only just begun to expand power over the weaker city-states of the Tigris-Euphrates. These huge twin rivers are, of course, the reason that the Middle East was considered for so long to be the center of the world. The rivers meant regular irrigation for crops, easy travel for people and goods, and a useful sewer system to get rid of waste. As a young king, Hammurabi fought off an invasion by a more powerful kingdom to the east, and then, after fighting it off, turned on his allies who had been unwilling and unable to provide more aid. The upshot of this was that Hammurabi ended his days (1750 B.C.) in command of a sizable empire running most of the length of the rivers.

What would it have been like to live in Hammurabi’s Empire? One of the hardest things I had to impress upon my students was the utter difference between our own lives and people who lived almost 4,000 years ago. To us, even nobles would have seemed ridiculously poor. Oh, they would have owned much more than we do in terms of farmland, animals, personal weapons and precious metals. But consider how little that wealth could buy them. There were no medicines worth the name: if you got sick, you got better or you didn’t. Meat was an expensive luxury. Fruit existed only in season. Beer and wine were incredibly weak, with an alcohol content of something like 5% for strong wine. And beer was a necessity, because drinking water was a good way to die of diarrhea. And disease was endemic. You could expect to lose at least half of your children to disease before they reached adulthood. There was no real concept of hygiene aside from, “don’t handle poop,” which was not always avoidable. Humans had parasites: fleas, lice and worms all the time. Itching was a fact of life.
Entertainment would have meant religious feasts and celebrations where there was dancing, music and plays. Or it would have meant singing, playing instruments and storytelling with friends at home. Nothing else existed.
The primary difference in the lifestyle of the nobles, besides better food, was the ability to command slaves to do their menial work, and to remain clean. But they had no plumbing, and no machines, just prettier tools.
Literacy was a study for nobles, and took years to achieve, because the writing system consisted of symbols that had as many as eighty meanings, dependent upon context.

However, Hammurabi’s Code was unique in that it was written in the language of the common people, so they could have heard and understood it when it was proclaimed, rather than it being a secret code among nobles. Hammurabi’s Code introduced the concept of at least a moderate presumption of innocence (not a complete one — it was quite possible to be accused and have to “prove” your innocence by surviving, e.g. being thrown in the river). It was based on compensation to the victim and retribution to the offender. Imprisonment as a punishment was unknown, because no one had the time or money to lock a man up in idleness. Fines, maiming and death were the most common punishments.

Hammurabi’s Code bears many similarities to the code of the Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, not because the latter directly copied it, but because of shared culture and tradition in that part of the world. Notably, while both codes recognize the differences between a slave and a free man, only Hammurabi’s code recognize a state of nobility. The Israelites who wrote the Law doubtless were not wealthy enough to allow a noble class to exist. In addition, Hammurbi’s code is a bit freer with the death penalty, which again likely reflects a wealthier culture’s ability to kill off a greater number of its subjects without endangering itself.

So there you have a quick look at life in ancient Babylon. If you want to see a really excellent novel in which a slightly later Babylon is portrayed in fiction, I recommend S.M. Stirling’s brutally and beautifully vivid Island In The Sea Of Time trilogy. This portrays the Babylon of the Kassites, which is about 600 years later than Hammurabi. And it doesn’t show up until Book 2, but it’s worth the read.

So these are details you can use in historical fiction, but if you’re writing fantasy, these conditions may be useful to bear in mind too, unless you choose to give your characters anachronistic knowledge or magical remedies for them. Hope you find it useful.