Monday, March 30, 2015

Dateline: New Orleans

The Big Easy, they call this fabulous city.  But it is certainly not easy to describe.  It is a place of paradox:  Musical, yet cacophonous.  Old, yet edgy.  Sunny and warm, but dark and eerie.  Exciting and lethargic.  Religious and at the same time debauched.  Bohemian AND touristy.  Exotic and familiar.  Seductive, but also off-putting.  An island of tolerance and openness, surrounded by some of the most intransigent small-mindedness imaginable.

I have walked around many places on this planet, and none of them is like New Orleans.  No place I know looks like it or feels like it.  It is American, but it possesses an Old Worldliness unparalleled anywhere else in the US.

It, and the state of Louisiana, used to be frequent destinations for me in what I used to call my career and what I now describe as my former day job.  Business took me here and along the Gulf Coast multiple times every year.  Louisiana has always proved the best state in the US for food, and I mean statewide.  Many American cities have great restaurants, but try to find anything but chains and drek outside the urban centers.  In Louisiana, the dining is great even in the small towns and just off the highways--some of the best anywhere.

My last visit to NOLA before this one was the year before Katrina.  I have wanted to come back but never had an excuse until my mystery writing buddy Greg Herren sent me a delightful invitation to present on a panel at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival.

The Festival has been a delight.  This year for the first time it was held in conjunction with the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, the only LGBTQ festival in the country.  Attendance at one got participants access to the other, and I found panels at both enlightening and entertaining.

My panel at TWNO--Ladies With an Attitude, also included Rebecca Chance, British author of wildly popular sexy thrillers.  Our moderator was the award-winning mystery writer Greg Herren, who has over thirty books, both adult and YA novels.  Greg is a thoughtful man and gifted speaker.  He did what no moderator I have ever worked with had done before.  He, Rebecca, and I talked about books we love, authors in our genre and out of it that we admire, and who influence us.  The audience was energized by the discussion, full of questions and opinions of their own, and were attracted to us as writers because they love the authors we love.  (Future moderators take note.  I know I certainly will make this part of any literary panel I ever moderate in the future.)

Greg holding forth on writing YA.

I attended Greg's  Saints and Sinners panel on writing YA.  I don't write YA or LGBTQ (unless you count a brief reference to the sex-life of Sor Eustasia  in City of Silver), but I found the discussion interesting and useful, much more about the topic philosophically and from a business perspective than the usual "my book" --"my book"-- "my book" discussions that I have sat through at other conferences.

I also got permission to crash the S&S party and heard great readings by talented short story writers.

Co-winners of the Saints & Sinners's best debut novel award:
La Shanda Katrice Barnett and Saeed Jones.  I heard her interviewed on
WNYC about her book "Jam on the Vine," which is getting great reviews.

A favorite event for me, and for many others, was the TWNO panel called And Then We Laughed, featuring humorists Roy Blount, Jr, Rick Bragg, and Amy Dickinson.  As a fan of the radio show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," I was familiar with the hilarious Blount and Dickinson.  Bragg was up to their standard and often did them one better.  I will arrive at the next big MIE meet-up armed with a couple of very funny jokes from that crowd.

Amy Dickenson
Roy Blount, Jr.
Rick Bragg

Their happy audience

Other than that, I have taken some nice walks around the Quarter and give you here some snaps of what I saw--in one case what I ate and drank.

My first breakfast of beignets and chicory-coffee in eleven years.  Delish!

Many ancient magnolias survived the storm.

Some buildings are all spruced up now.

Some are left showing some signs of damage.

Cat and dogs!

Bourbon Street--the most famous and to my way of thinking
the least interesting street in New Orleans.  I spared you a
photo of the drunk, lying in the street at 3 PM, surrounded
by police officers. 

As you read this on Monday, I will be touring around the city more extensively.  I'll post some more pictures on my Facebook page.  Meet me there if you want to see them.  Otherwise, I'll "see" you here next week.  Who knows where we'll go then.

Annamaria - Monday

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Death on the Reef

If I asked you to name the most poisonous creatures on earth, you'd probably give me the name of a plant, or possibly a snake. The sushi fans would likely vote for pufferfish, and quite a few other dangerous species would surely make the list.
Not many of you would offer this:

Palythoa coral - this species is called "Poseidon"

Yet if we measure by LD-50 (the median lethal dose, meaning the dose required to kill 50% of a test population within a measured amount of time), the benign-looking corals of biological order Zoantharia put most other toxic creatures to shame. These corals produce a substance known as palytoxin (chemical formula C129H223N3O54)--and the LD-50 for palytoxin poisoning in adult humans is 8 micrograms. By way of reference...that's eight millionths of a gram--and toxic zoanthids can produce up to 3 milligrams of toxin per polyp.  And each individual "head" is a polyp....
You put me in here with WHAT???

Order Zoantharia consists largely of colonial, tentacled polyp corals, including some of the most common, and most beloved, soft coral species--
the zoanthids: 
See the pretty green corals? They want to kill you.

and the palythoas:
(The blue ones in the center and at the top are palythoas)

You can buy them at any aquarium store that sells soft corals, anywhere in the world. People love their brilliant colors, and because they look like flowers, but these are animals, not plants--and some of them can kill.
Not all species in the order contain or produce palytoxins, and not all of the ones that do excrete it in large enough quantities to render an entire aquarium toxic. Palytoxin isn't absorbed through the skin, which means it has to enter the bloodstream directly--usually via the victim's eyes or an open cut. However, it can aerosolize in the presence of water vapor, and poison a victim through inhalation (which has happened when reef enthusiasts attempt to sterilize rocks by boiling or application of steam).
Scientists officially "discovered" palytoxin in 1971 (ironically, the same year I was "discovered"...) but Hawaiians had known about the toxin for hundreds of years and even used it to poison spears and arrows. They harvested the toxin from a coral they called "limu-make-o-hana" -- "the Seaweed of Death from Hana." 

Not the seaweed of death. This is my abalone, Oscar, above a large colony of blue palythoas.
Many of the Hawaiian zoanthids and palythoas (both of which fall within order Zoantharia)  do contain palytoxin, as do similar corals from other parts of the world. Normally, the corals keep the toxin in their bodies and excrete it in response to threats. Unfortunately, the very act of splitting off polyps (the flower-like heads) or moving them to a new environment is often perceived as a mortal threat, causing the coral to excrete--or spit--a blob of toxic mucus. 
Smart aquarium keepers exercise special caution around these species.
Ironically, the first night I ever blogged about palytoxin I also accidentally handled some new corals with an open paper cut...and ended up with palytoxin poisoning, though I didn't realize what had happened for several hours.
Most likely, these are the ones that got me. Common name: "Fire and Ice"

Symptoms include dizziness, rapid heartbeat, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, lethargy, kidney failure, muscle spasms, cyanosis, and trouble breathing. When the poisoning proves fatal, the cause of death is normally heart failure (heart attack). I got lucky--my symptoms only included the dizziness, nausea, rapid heartbeat and a little trouble breathing. I self-medicated with Benadryl, water consumption, and rest, and recovered completely in about twelve hours.
This colony "walked" away from the larger colony below it. Yes, they're semi-mobile.

One more thing...there is no antidote for palytoxin. Vasodialators can help, but only if injected directly into the heart within moments after exposure. (Anyone seen the movie THE ROCK? Yeah...pretty much that, except that you die of a heart attack...and fortunately, your skins doesn't melt off your body.) In humans, the standard treatment is "supportive care."
Palytoxin poisoning is rare, and seldom fatal--mostly because the majority of popular captive species don't contain the toxin, and the ones that do can "learn" that common handling isn't a serious threat. Also, aquarium water dilutes palytoxin on contact, making it far less likely that reef keepers will receive a toxic dose. That said, best practices in the aquarium world include the use of rubber gloves and glasses when handling dangerous species and not putting open cuts in the water. 
See the green zoanthids in the lower right? They tolerate seahorses hitching to them at suppertime.
You can forget the snake, the scorpion and the pufferfish. That "innocent flower" under the sea will get you faster than all the others put together.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

How a Greek Pilot Handles Crisis

I don’t know what led me to stumble upon this little (unpublished) piece I’d written for The New York Times more than a half-dozen years ago, but yesterday morning I came across it searching for something to write about. My juices weren’t flowing and I just tossed “Greek” and “Greece” into “search” and there it was.  It was the word “pilot” in the title that caught my eye—no doubt because of the horror of Germanwings Flight 9525 front and center in everyone’s mind at the moment.  God rest their innocent souls. 

So, I read the piece more with a self-critical eye on how much my writing had (hopefully) improved than for substance, when it hit me that much more than the writing had changed. It actually meant something far different from when I’d written it.  It no longer was about pilots or planes, but about how Greeks survive today, and everyday, amid a crippling financial crisis with no end in sight.  A situation not in play when I’d written the piece.

Here, see for yourself what I mean:

I’ve spent over [thirty] years traveling between NYC and Mykonos.  Now I live half the year there writing books exploring the Greek way of life through the genre of the murder mystery. 

One would think a non-Greek writing about a killer on a tourist island paradise might galvanize partisan locals toward hanging him from a lamppost in the harbor, but instead, they take pride in saying, “Only a Mykonian could have written Murder in Mykonos!”  I think that’s because we’ve shared so many unique experiences: ones that reveal the essence of a people’s character.   One in particular stands out.  It involved a plane, a pilot, and prayer.

It was back in the days of narrow-seat, turbo-prop planes, and wide-open cockpit doors that allowed pilots to spread their cigarette smoke around.

That morning flight out of Athens to Mykonos started out much the same as every other.  Beige-to-brown, round-hilled Aegean islands rolling out beneath us against a lapis-colored sea. 

Mykonos is called the Island of the Winds, so a choppy approach wasn’t unusual.  The man next to me said “Don’t worry,” he took that flight all the time, and “Greek pilots are the best.”  I sensed he was speaking more to calm himself than me.  

As we approached the airport, it went from choppy to shaky, then to choppy AND shaky.  By the time we were over the runway it was all rock and roll. 

I was in a left-side window seat staring directly at the wing when the plane tumbled 90 degrees to the left and the wingtip was about to touch the runway.  I added my prayers to everyone else’s.  I knew this was it.

But the pilot had other plans.  I don’t know how he did it, but he wrenched the plane under control and flew straight back to Athens.  The passengers said not a word, just listened through the open cockpit door to the pilot screaming into his radio. My seatmate translated:  the tower had told him it was safe to land and he was critiquing their advice and offering opinions on their parentage.

When we landed, the pilot stormed off ahead of the passengers and resumed his screaming, embellished by some universally recognized hand gestures, at a man trying to coax him into the terminal.  

My former seatmate, said, “I think I’ll take the ferry from now on.”

I asked, “Why?  You said it before, ‘Greek pilots are the best.’”  He shrugged and left, I assumed to catch a boat. 

In some cowboy spirit of immediately getting back on the horse that threw you, I boarded the next plane for Mykonos.  But I was a lawyer (then) not a cowboy—never even rode a horse.  What was I thinking?  Then onto the plane walked that same pilot—smoking, smiling, and once again at peace with the world. 

He’d dealt with a crisis openly and aggressively, now he’d moved on.  I got his point: life is too short to do it any other way.

I smiled.  All was back to normal.


Bottom line for today: There are those who flee risk and those who tackle it head on. Only time will tell who’s made the better choice, but the outcome in large measure will ultimately depend upon the Tower making wiser judgments.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Crime and Publishment And the Skinny Pigs


I'd like you to meet Graham Smith.  He's the Crime writer who runs the Crime and Publishment weekend that I did some work for recently, but more about that later. Graham is a very busy man, one of those chaps that always has a pen stuck behind his ear and a thousand things going on on his mind, all in the right order. I think he began life as a builder so this could well be true but I  think all writers should be caught up in the imaginative affray and not that well behaved really.  You know, vast of mind and rampant creative processes  which leads to terrible handwriting among other traits of marvelous.
However to his credit, he does have
                       a) terrible handwriting
                       b) the ability to tell a good story, short and sharp.
                       c) a very quick sense of humour
                       d) a pen behind his ear that I borrowed on many occasions ( I can never find mine!)

                                                  Graham behind the bar

The Crime And Publishment folk are a very friendly on-line bunch who seem to meet up every now and again to eat, drink and drink some more. As a bit of an outsider I was struck by the support and generosity they have for each other's writing, and was wondering if that was because many of them live in places ( I'm refusing to type the words 'the middle of no where'!)  that are more rural, a little off the beaten track and lack the  physical local writers group that we enjoy in the mid belt. 

I bet they all live in perfectly normal places  but I'm not letting that spoil the blog..

Here's what Graham had to say....

Who and what is Crime and Publishment?
Crime & Publishment is a weekend of crime writing masterclasses. It is held at the hotel I manage on the outskirts of Gretna Green.

                                                   The marvelous reviewer Chris.
                                           A well known face from Harrogate and Bristol

What does that location lend to the crime writing.... it struck me how close the motorway was--- for quick get away if I had murdered Chris Simmonds and stuck him in your wheely bin?
Being close to the motorway is great for quick getaways and the fact Gretna Green is a tourist town means there is a constant stream of visitors to the area and therefore lots of stories to be overheard.

Do you meet online? How often do you meet in person?
We have a group on the book of faces (Facebook) It’s a secret group complete with passwords, funny handshakes and a rather bizarre initiation ceremony involving The Da Vinci Code, self-flagellation and the words “I can write better than this”. To supplement this online activity we meet up for a meal and a natter about all things relevant to crime fiction every couple of months or so.
Why was it set up and whose idea was it?
I founded Crime & Publishment along with Inga McVicar as a way to help aspiring writers achieve their aim of securing a publishing contract.
Can anybody join?
We are open to all writers who are looking to learn more about their craft and improve their writing. We’ve had attendees from all over the country with varied levels of experience and previous successes.
Many of you seemed very well informed, did C and P stem from any review website?
Thank you for the compliment. Crime and Publishment was only made possible by the contacts I’ve established as a reviewer for Not only have I been able to attract talented authors as speakers, I’ve been lucky enough have attendees who know a certain amount of writing crime fiction.

And what is WCW?
WCW is the shortened from of Word Count Wednesday. This is a regular feature (weekly believe it or not) on our Facebook group. The idea is that you post the number of new words written towards a crime fiction story. It acts as a prompt for everyone and engenders a collective support system. Depending upon everyone’s commitments away from writing and where they are in their novel, the non-existent trophy can pass back and forth between any member.

How long has the C and P weekend been going?
2015 was our third year and I am already starting to plan for 2016.
      This is Mike Craven, a man who wears Spiderman socks... do not ask me how I know this....

Biggest success, apart from Ms Ramsay and Mr Malone's Jaws oscar winning performance?
I didn’t witness that performance myself, therefore under the mygaff / myrules jurisdiction it cannot be included. In all seriousness, the fact Mike Craven, Lucy Cameron and myself have all earned publishing contracts because of C&P is undoubtedly the greatest success. I never dared to imagine that after running the event twice I would have such a batting average.
        Lucy Cameron's pie chart to the great novel.
 I think the orange bit might stand for googling oneself!

Biggest Disaster?
There hasn’t been a disaster as such, but when David Thomas contacted me a week before the event with news of unforeseen family circumstance. I did see rather a large wave approaching my little boat. I was very fortunate that Neil White was able to step in and rescue me.

How do you split writing time with what must be a very consuming job?
It’s a struggle at times but when a story is burning inside me I have to get it out. My shifts at work get me three weekdays a fortnight when my son is at school and I tend to try and get at least an hour’s writing done after 9.00pm every night.

What book are you on now and how is it going?
I’m working on my own edits of a novel provisionally titled “The Watcher” and I’m really enjoying the discovery of all the stupid mistakes I’ve made. I hate the whole editing process but I know how much of a difference it can make. The way this one is going I may have to invest in a larger swear box.
                                                         And that is a Skinny Pig!

Tell us about the naked guinea pigs....
My wife breeds a rare kind of hairless guinea pig known as “skinny pigs”. I have as little to do with them as possible because of a firm belief they are nothing more than tail-less rats. However, I have writing as my hobby and she has her skinny pigs. With the bald wee buggers selling at over £100 apiece I’m gonna have to shift a lot of books to compete with her financially.

Caro Ramsay 27/03/2015

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Australia and South Africa are old rivals in a variety of areas of which sport is usually the most contentious.  As I wrote this, Australia beat India to take a cricket world cup final spot against New Zealand, who squeaked past South Africa in the semifinal thus denying a dream South Africa vs Australia final. Oh well, next time.

Another area where South Africa and Australia competed – but ended up on the same side – was to host the SKA – the square kilometer array.  This is intended to be the world’s largest, fastest, highest resolution radio telescope - roughly 50 times more powerful and 10,000 faster than any radio telescope today. You might imagine that the most interesting telescope would be one that could see light from furthest away, but you’d be wrong.  Astronomers obtain the most resolution from the radio wave part of the electromagnetic spectrum and they are hoping to see very far away which means very long ago in time. So long ago that it would be back to the earliest times of the universe, just a few hundred thousand years after the big bang.

This month the central steering committee for the project gave the green light to the detailed plans. The SKA is going ahead. At least as long as the money doesn’t run out.

Artists impression of the Australian configuration
The name is based on the design concept that the total receiving area of the components will be of the order of a square kilometer. That’s a million square meters or around ten million square feet.  That’s a lot of receiving dishes. The ‘telescope’ will span thirteen countries with the largest concentration of receivers in a remote corner of South Africa’s Northern Cape province and another large batch in West Australia.  It's one of the largest pure science projects ever undertaken, and it will not be at a fully operation stage for another ten years. (Watch for a follow up blog in 2025!)

Artists impression of the different SKA components at night
Courtesy SKA
Both South Africa and Australia put in bids for the whole project, but the final decision in 2012 - to share the project between the two countries - takes the strengths of both offerings.  Different types of receivers are required in any case to span the very broad range of frequencies required.  Other countries - including Botswana - also have a part to play.

Mid frequency array - for a lonely spot in Botswana maybe?
Courtesy SKA

One of the South African KATs
Courtesy SKA 
What one needs for this type of initiative is somewhere as far away from man-made radio sources as possible. The Northern Cape desert and the western Australian one qualify well.  Next it’s good if the site is as high and dry as possible – the atmosphere absorbs radio signals and the damper it is the worse the absorption.  Good for those desert locations again. Then one needs computer power.  Finally one needs money. A lot of money.

The science projects on the SKA’s agenda include extreme tests of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, understanding the development of galaxies starting close to their earliest formation, studying dark matter, dark energy, and cosmic magnetism.  And, oh yes, we may pick up a few messages from extraterrestrials along the way there somewhere as well.

What's out there?

South Africa’s prototype was called the Karroo Array Telescope (KAT) and a seven instrument cluster was built as a demonstrator for the South African proposal.  The first phase of the South African part of the SKA project will be to extend KAT to 64 instruments.  The larger array will be renamed MeerKAT.  Meer means more in Afrikaans so that's appropriate. But Meerkat is also the name of a charming species of mongoose (scientific name Suricata suricatta), which gets up inquisitively on its hind legs to look around and see what’s going on.  Seems like MeerKAT is a pretty good name.

Michael - Thursday.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Ladies and Gentlemen…Comrades and Friends…"

A little over 10 years after I left China for the first time, in the Los Angeles Opera staged John Adams' opera, "Nixon in China."

You might be thinking, "An opera starring Richard Nixon? That's…an interesting choice." Many critics shook their heads as well, not at all sure what to make of an opera whose characters were not only based on real people but the majority of whom were still alive at the time of these first productions (the opera originated in Houston in 1987 and was performed in LA in 1990).

My then-boss asked me if I'd like her ticket -- modern opera wasn't really her thing. I wasn't sure that it was my thing either, but I was fascinated by the idea of an opera based on Richard Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China.

(click to embiggen -- it's a hoot!)

I'd gone to China in 1979 at the age of 20, not because I'd had any particular interest in China. The opportunity had come up, so I took it. I really hadn't had any idea how this decision would impact my life, that it would be in essence an abrupt left turn that took me away from any clearly marked path and into unknown territory. Ten years later, I was still wrestling with the experience. China had been so different from any previous point of reference, and now I was orienting my life around something I really didn't understand.

(if you look carefully, you'll find me)

So I'd tried to make up for that lack of context by reading Chinese history. In particular, I was fascinated by the enigmatic Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic, who held the position until his death in January 1976.

Zhou, unlike Mao, was still greatly admired by most of the Chinese people I met back then -- intellectuals for the most part. They and many Chinese saw Zhou as the "People's Premier," the rational  leader who moderated the worst of Mao's excesses, who truly cared about China and the Chinese people. 

The reality, of course, is far more ambiguous, complicated by the fact that Zhou, unlike Mao and many other Chinese leaders, did not leave extensive written records of his thoughts and philosophy. You have to search for the evidence with Zhou, mine other accounts, dig out salient quotes. You have to read between the lines.

Anyway, off I went to the Los Angeles premiere of "Nixon in China." This was a slightly revamped staging of the original Houston Grand Opera production, with the original cast. 

From the moment the curtains opened on a choir standing in a stylized Beijing winter landscape, I was hooked. 

Adams as a composer has his roots in minimalism, but "Nixon in China" goes far beyond the sort of repetition you might associate with that style. It is melodically lush and rhythmically complicated (how the conductor and the musicians count some of these passages is beyond me!). It has actual songs you can sing (well, I do anyway, but I'm told I'm a little strange). But what really impressed me beyond the music, which I love, is the insightful libretto by Alice Goodman. The words and music come together to convey an amazing amount of historical and character insight. If you want to see what I mean, take a look and a listen at the scene below. 

Contrast the smooth elegance of Zhou Enlai's vocal lines with the herky-jerky repetition of Nixon and his fixation on "news."

If you want to keep watching, Nixon's aria continues and descends into a truly paranoid passage about "rats chewing the sheets." So Nixon! And then it's on to Mao's entrance, accompanied by his three secretaries, "translating" his disjointed thoughts into a demented chorus.

But I think what impressed me the most was the opera's insightful portrayal of Zhou Enlai. Nixon is the star, Mao the force of nature, Madame Mao gets the show-stopping aria that closes Act 2, and Pat Nixon is the most sympathetic character. Zhou is much harder to characterize. He has two arias that bookend the opera, one at the end of Act 1, the other that closes the opera. What they do is show a character who has the most insight and awareness of of the cast, who grasps both the potential and the reality of the situation, of that moment in history and how they had arrived at it. He has the hope and the vision that they can truly create a better world, one where the different paths of nations are mutually respected. 

(I love this piece and this performance by baritone Sanford Sylvan. My biggest disappointment with other productions has been that I haven't seen another "Zhou" come close to what he does here)

But for all that, Zhou is ultimately a tragic character, because this awareness is combined with an inability--or an unwillingness--to prevent the worst of Mao's excesses. During the Cultural Revolution scene that closes Act 2, he is but a passive spectator--disapproving, perhaps, but helpless to prevent the chaos. At the end of the opera, he is left to wonder: "How much of what we did was good?"

Speaking of Madame Mao, her aria is a total blast, the dramatic highpoint of the opera: 

The video above is from the Metropolitan Opera's production in 2011. Yep, "Nixon in China" made it to the Met -- and in fact, after that uncertain premiere back in the late 80s and early 90s, it is now probably the most widely performed contemporary opera of our time. My hometown San Diego Opera just finished four performances to stellar reviews, and yes, I went. Twice.

p.s. I would be remiss if I didn't add one of Pat Nixon's arias. They are truly beautiful. Sorry about the ad preceding it!

Lisa…every other Wednesday...