14 March 2015

A Note of Their Own

A serious post from me (don’t everyone faint….)

Sometimes a simple sentence can make you gulp back tears and realize how lucky you've been.

I received the following note from the Hamilton Literacy Council re the donation of sales revenue from the launch of The Artful Goddaughter mob caper:

"As I write this note to thank you...I am reminded of the dream of some of our clients that they will one day be able to write a note of their own."

The Hamilton Literacy Council is my charity of choice.  I first came across them when I worked in health care at an urban hospital.  We had an Out of the Cold program that treated homeless people with health problems, and provided people with blankets and extra clothing to keep them warm on the streets.

Warm on the streets…I should mention here that I live south of Toronto in Canada, where we have winter for four months of the year.  Real winter.  This year we have had 38 days in a row below freezing.

I won’t describe the health problems suffered by people who live day and night on the streets, under bridges, and in bus shelters.  That is a topic for an even more serious post.

The person I am thinking of now is a woman I met during that time.  She was middle-aged, which at the time I thought was forty-five.  (My guideline has changed since then.)  We gave her care, for which she was grateful.  And for that care, we required her signature on a piece of paper, in order to please our sponsors.

She stalled.  We pressed again, in plainer English, in case it was her second language.  It wasn’t.

We were baffled. She looked away and then she told us.  She couldn’t write her name.

It’s an odd thing.  When I think of someone being illiterate, I think of them not being able to read books and newspapers.  It wasn’t until this moment that it dawned on me that being illiterate also meant not being able to write.

At SleuthSayers, many of us make at least part of our income from writing fiction tales.  We produce reams of manuscript pages, year after year.  We may labour over the perfect sentence.  We grumble when editors try to change our words.  We joke (at least I do) about putting a mob hit on said editors, or at the very least, killing them off in our next book.

Writing is my therapy.  Reading is my escape from the real world.  I can’t imagine enduring the calamities of life without that escape.  And I don’t live under bridges or in bus shelters.

Next year, I will have a book launch again, and I will donate the sales from that launch to the literacy council.  It’s so little to do, when compared to those who actually volunteer as tutors.  I will continue to write books that are easy to read, and hopefully, entertaining for those who are acquiring the skill of reading.

Learning to read as an adult takes concentration, determination, and immense courage.  I think, perhaps, that no one understands the value of the written word more than those who have struggled to master it.

This is my salute to the men and women who dream of writing a note of their own.

Melodie Campbell occasionally writes serious stuff, but her books are mainly comedies. This is probably a good thing.

The Artful Goddaughter on Amazon

13 March 2015

Afghan Police Women

By Dixon Hill

A recent article in the New York Times, about problems faced by Afghan police women, has me considering some problems I ran into when I worked in the army.

Since the problems mentioned in the news story are faced by women police officers, I felt the story fit into our framework here on SleuthSayers.

And, since I've dealt a bit with somewhat similar cross-cultural training problems -- trying to change the way that certain foreign troops viewed women -- I feel a deep sympathy with the women in the NY Times story, and for those striving valiantly to change cultural norms that can be quite harmful to women or even to men or children.  And I feel great concern about the difficulties encountered by the women in question.
Spec-4 Collar Rank Insignia

101st Shoulder Patch
The "Screaming Eagle"
The first time I ran into the dilemma of attempting to aid foreign males to change their views of females, I was a Spec-4 (Short for Specialist 4th Grade: the pay-grade equivalent of a corporal, but without any real leadership authority -- sort of a de facto Private 1st Class-'Plus') working for the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, subordinate to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

Two Middle-Eastern officers came out to our field site, one day, to see how we conducted collection and analysis under field conditions.  Our Company Executive Officer (XO), a First Lieutenant, led them to the tent where the analysis element was working.  The XO had the female analyst come out and explain the procedure to the visiting officers.

Crest of the 311th MI BN
I was along on this exercise, not really as an analyst, but rather as a truck driver and 'chogi boy'. However, because I was an Arabic Linguist, and had studied Arabic culture to an extent -- also learning much first-hand from listening to what my native-Arabic instructors said and by watching how they behaved -- I was not surprised when a quick look of frustrated anger flashed across both men's faces. Nor was I shocked, when their eyes almost immediately glazed over and they clearly quit paying attention to the female Spec-4 who was briefing them.

After the two foreign officers departed, our furious XO returned and fumed aloud about the rude behavior of the two foreign officers.

Finally, the Sergeant First Class who ran the "beans and bullets" of the unit on this exercise (and was also an Arabic linguist) blurted: "Sir, with all due respect: What did you expect?  You insulted them!  In their minds, your actions made it very clear that they were so unimportant, and such an unwelcome interruption, that you chose a 'non-person'  tell them what they wanted to know."  (Please note that such outbursts don't happen in most military units, but I've noticed that they are strangely common, and relatively well-tolerated, in some military intelligence units.)

Now please don't misunderstand why I chose to post this particular story.

I'm not saying that what happened between that Spec-4 and those two officers was right.  And, frankly, I wasn't happy about it either.  On the other hand, I think the XO (who was actually quite intelligent, and a good officer -- not a comment I've ever made lightly!) probably did get caught-out by a mistake in cross-cultural communications.

I say probably, because it depends on the objective he had in mind.  As I said: he was pretty bright.  So he might have done it on purpose.

Certainly, if his goal was to help those two officers get a good look at the technical aspects of how we did our work, then yes the XO made a mistake.  Because they didn't pay attention to the female specialist, so they didn't gain that knowledge.

But, if you think about it: probably one of the most important things those two foreign officers could learn about U.S. Army operations -- which their army could benefit from -- would be the manner in which we incorporate females into our operations.

What happened that day probably didn't change their minds about the role of females in society, but I think you'll agree that they did get a pretty big shock when that lieutenant brought out that female Spec-4 to brief them.

And they had a US Army captain tagging along with them, looking after them.  My hope is that they complained to him about what happened, and that he explained the way our army looked at females and their capabilities.  The way I figure it, if stuff like that kept happening to these two officers -- and the captain kept explaining -- they might have begun to get the message.  They might not have welcomed that message.  And it still might not have made much difference in their personal lives, because their outlook was undoubtedly deeply held and part of the culture they grew up in.  But at least it would be a start.  Maybe those guys got the shock of their lives, that day.  But, maybe it was the first step on their mental trip to learning a new way of thinking.

Working to change cultural norms is like that, in my opinion.  It's not something that can be accomplished overnight.  Sometimes not within a decade or more.  (Look at the changes in societal norms that our own nation has undergone since the 1960's, and compare this to the work that still needs to be done before certain members of our society will rest secure in unquestioned complete equality, for example.)  And, sometimes folks require a little "shock" to help them wake up and smell the coffee.

I used such a shock technique several years later, after I'd gotten into Special Forces.  That, however, is a story for another time, or this post will wind up so long that I'll have to get an agent in order to post it.

Suffice it to say, I have good idea of the frustrations those working to promote the concept and implementation of women police officers working standard shifts in Afghanistan are dealing with.  And, I worry that programs such as these can fall through the cracks, and are thus sometimes not at the forefront of peoples' minds when considering the pros and cons of US troop deployment and redeployment.  The New York Times is covering the story quite well, and you can see the first article about the situation if you CLICK HERE

See you in two weeks!

12 March 2015

Riders of the Purple Wage

Lately, a number of very famous people have been getting their knickers in a twist over Artificial Intelligence, or AI:
black and white photo of Hawking in a chair, in an office."The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."  Stephen Hawking
“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out."  Elon Musk
Now I can sort of understand why.  The general premise for decades has been that some day the computers/robots will take over, and run us, with only two possible scenarios:
  • Great - Robots and computers will do everything for us, and we will live a life of luxury (according to the late great Frederick Pohl, too much so), comfort and security thanks to Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics that protect mankind from the revolt of the machines.  
  • Bad - Everything by Philip K. Dick, and, of course, "The Matrix".  
Which it will be depends upon the mood of the times.  Currently, we're not a particularly optimistic species, so the common response is, "We're doomed! We're doomed!"  (Unless you're Sheldon Cooper, and then it cannot happen soon enough.)
Maybe.  Maybe not.  But what concerns me about the takeover of the machines isn't that they use my stasis body as a heat source while providing my mind innumerable alternative reality jaunts to keep me a content and unquestioning host organism.  Or even AIs killing us all (for one thing, logically, they'd do it quickly - only humans are sadists.  And cats.).  What concerns me is the simple matter of a paycheck.  Eating.  Rent.  Utilities.

Look, the main reason we have computers and robots is to do our work for us.  Anything boring, repetitive, heavy, dangerous, etc. - eventually, we'll make a machine to do it.  Calculators mean I don't have to add up the columns of figures for which they used to hire Nicholas Nickleby.  Payloaders mean we don't need an army of physical laborers hoisting earth. Tractors, etc., mean that today's Pa Ingalls doesn't need to muscle his way through the sod with horse and plow.  Computers mean I don't have to write everything out long-hand, or type it over and over again until it's perfect.  It's great.

hamburger robotOn the other hand, modern technology has eliminated and is eliminating a whole ton of jobs. Typesetters; typists; clerks; gas station attendants; innumerable factory workers; graphic designers; paralegals; low-level tax preparers; most farm hands; most farmers; bank tellers; airline check-in agents; retail clerks; accountants; actuaries; travel agents; most reporters, etc.  Soon there will be far fewer surgeons, teachers, and other high-level jobs as robots take over.  And in the fast food industry, the robots are coming to flip those burgers and make those fries.

The point is that, as we use technology to do 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90% of the work, we will also unemploy a significant number of people.  There will still be jobs, at all levels - just infinitely less of them.  Perhaps only a handful, here and there.  Which leaves the elephant in the room:  what do you do about the people?

Yes, everyone talks about retraining.  See a typical chirpy article on "The Future of Work" .  BUT, I've always had two basic questions:

(1) There is a significant number of people who can't be retrained.  Some will be too old, some will be too set, and some - frankly - whose mental ability to learn complex problem-solving skills is extremely limited.  I run into some of them at the pen.  (In case you don't know it, prisons are the modern housing facility for many of the mentally disabled, as well as the mentally ill.)  These are the people who are never considered in future planning talks, the ones that are ignored by all economists and pundits, but shouldn't be.  As I once said about a former student who was caught stealing, "Well, how else is he going to make a living?"

(2) If you have 250 people in a town, and there are only 100 actual jobs, it doesn't matter how much retraining you do.  There are still 150 people without work because there are no jobs.  Urbanize that.  Nationalize that.  Globalize that.

In Philip Jose Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage", he posited a society in which they coped with the problem of almost complete unemployment by giving everyone a salary just for being born.  It's enough to keep them housed and fed and hooked up to the Fido, a combination cable TV/videophone, along with a little wet-ware called a fornixator (you translate it).  To get anything else, you have to prove your exceptionality, but most people are happily occupied without it.  For those who aren't, well, there are wildlife reserves where they can go off and be weird - but they have to give up the purple wage.

Soylent green.jpgIt's a successful society, in its own way - and perhaps the only logical one. Because the truth is, sooner or later, in a society where technology is doing 90% of the work, there will have to be a "purple wage".
That, or
(1) society comes up with innumerable "make work" jobs, like picking oakum in the workhouse.  (Personally, I foresee a lot of crime.)
      That, or
(2) the unemployed masses (a la "Soylent Green" or "Zardoz", etc.) will be pounding at the armored enclaves of the fabulously wealthy.  (As I said, I foresee a lot of crime.)
      That, or
(3) a whole lot of people are going to have to die, leaving just enough to run the machines, and do the few jobs that still cannot be done by machines, and the fabulously wealthy (there is always a group of fabulously wealthy) to enjoy unending leisure.  Wall-E, call home!
      That, or
(4) The Matrix.

Anyway, here's the question:  As we pursue technological advancements, can we let go of the Protestant Work Ethic?  Let go of the idea that we are what we do?  Must people work or starve, even if there's plenty of everything except jobs?  Can we tolerate, support, even design a society where the norm for everyone (instead of just the wealthy) is "the leisured class"?

Now, you may think the last question is nonsense.  For one thing, we've been promised endless leisure for a century now, and most people are still working their butts off.  On the other hand, we do have more leisure than almost any other society in history.  This began with the industrial revolution, and one of the most interesting things about reading "Consuming Passions" by Judith Flanders is watching the development of ways for the working classes to spend their new-found leisure.  (Hey - they had all of Saturday afternoon and Sundays off!)  Thanks to advertising, sports, vacations, theater, and literature were turned into major industries.  (Drinking had always been a favorite activity.)  And, instantly, the pundits, poets, philosophers, and religious thinkers started decrying the horrible waste of human time and energy on trivia.  And talking about the nobility of hard work, piety, thrift, self-denial and sobriety:  for the lower classes only, of course.

File:Victorian cricket team 1859.jpg
Victorian cricket team

We have pretty much the same discussion going on today:  in certain circles, if you don't have a paying job, you're worthless.  (Unless you're wealthy enough not to.)  And the idea that someone who's unemployed has a television, a cell phone, and computer games for the kids - well, they're obviously spending too much money on all the wrong stuff.  Not to mention, if they have such things, they can't be "really" poor.

NOTE 1:  In Florida they give cell phones to the homeless, for a variety of reasons.  (Contact from parole officers, call-backs on jobs, etc.)
NOTE 2:  I'm always amazed at the people who check out other people's grocery carts and then post, outraged, if someone who's on food stamps buys candy or other luxury items.  (See this article for the alternative view:  People on Food Stamps Make Better Grocery Choices.)  God forbid the poor eat something other than gruel...

Basically, I'm leisured, you're lazy, and they're useless.

Anyway, today we've got smart phones, social media, computer games, Netflix, and innumerable other ways to waste what time we have (on the job or off) in the modern equivalent of Fidos and fornixators.  And it seems like the list is going to expand at algorithmic rate. Meanwhile, the list of available jobs is decreasing, at least geometrically, every time we turn around.  IF we get to where technology performs most of the work, and IF we get to where we have a regular unemployment of 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 percent, can we change our thinking from "unemployed" to "leisured"?  Can we develop a new idea of what people "should" do?  Of what people are "supposed" to do?

Without work, what are people for?
"Tompkins Square Park Central Knoll" by David Shankbone -
David Shankbone, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

11 March 2015

Foyle's War

I've been on a Brit bender, lately. Here's another one.
FOYLE'S WAR started running in 2002, and it's still on. Like a lot of British television, they only make three or four episodes a season - but each episode has an hour and a half runtime, and has a five-week shooting schedule. For another thing, it's shot on Super 16MM, not high-def video, which is more expensive, but gives the show the feel of a feature picture, depth of field and a nice saturated color. They put the money up on-screen where you can see it.

The gimmick of the show - you want to call it that - is that it's wartime Britain, 1939-45, and superintendent Foyle (who'd rather be actively serving) is assigned to criminal cases, on the homefront. These, given the genre, are murder mysteries, but the war is always present, in the foreground or just over the horizon.

The canvas is quite broad, although the stories generally resolve themselves in the homely and familiar, the domestic disturbances of daily life. The constants, an illicit affair or an unwanted pregnancy, envy, greed, wrath, and pride, are the usual suspects, but they often involve wider anxieties: the German bombing raids, fears of an impending invasion, rationing and the black market, war profiteers, isolationists and Nazi sympathizers, spy-hunters from Special Branch, the code-breaking at Bletchley, the rescue from Dunkirk, these have all figured in the plotlines. Nor is it window-dressing. The war becomes a character.

Foyle is played by Michael Kitchen, one of those actors you sort of remember, but can't quite place the name. I first noticed him in TO PLAY THE KING, the sequel to HOUSE OF CARDS - the original, with Ian Richardson. Kitchen has a lived-in face. He makes Foyle seem approachable, but there's a weariness, something held in reserve, an inner, or even inward, person. Once in a while, the well-mannered mask slips, and the steel shows through.

An interesting director's device I noticed. They use a lot of close-ups, which is common in television, but in this case, there are often long, very tight shots of Foyle, where you see only a slight facial movement, a tug of his mouth, or his eyes downcast, and then an up-from-under glance. The visual equivalent of Columbo's near-exit line, "Oh, just one more thing - "

When you do period drama, it's more than the vintage cars, or everybody wearing hats. It's about the psychological environment, the circumstance, the way people think. I know this myself, from writing the Mickey Counihan stories, which take place in late 1940's postwar New York, and Janice Law, to take a not-so-random example, is careful in her Francis Bacon novels not to fall into anachronism, meaning her world (and Bacon's) is
pushing up against the Modern, but it hasn't quite arrived, yet. It's just around the corner. This is the background music of FOYLE'S WAR. Nobody knows for sure that Hitler's going to be beaten, or whether England will survive. They go about their business with possible calamity waiting in the wings, but they keep their wits, and their common decency. Foyle is heroic, not because he has extraordinary powers, or sees behind the curtain, but simply because he does his job, in a trying time. He rises to the occasion. This is the persistence of the everyday. Life, in its messy particulars, stumbles ahead. The war effort is one thing, just keeping your head above water is another.


10 March 2015

Double Identity

by Jim Winter

It's a brave new world, publishing is. Self-publishing doesn't quite have the stench it once had. If a writer does not go traditional, he or she can write anything they want. But the gatekeepers aren't gone. If anything, there are more of them. They're called readers, and they still have rules no matter what the JA Konraths and John Lockes of the world try to tell you.

Most of the rules are common sense. Write a good story. (I like to think I do.) Don't look like an amateur. (Probably need to work harder on this one.) Stick with your genre. On that one, readers are far less forgiving than Barnes & Noble, indie bookstores, and even the Big Five publishers. So what to do?

What any writer would do, traditional or independent. Write under two names. I started doing this in the last couple of years. While I was in a groove with an ambitious police novel I describe as "The Wire meets 87th Precinct," I felt that this thing had time to fail. It might not find an agent. It might not get a deal even if it did. I'm talking with an agent now, but it still has time to fail. I had to start looking beyond.

So I started a science fiction novel under a different name. I referred to this name as "Dick Bachman," though that's not what I really use. It is, of course, a Stephen King reference to the novel The Dark Half, wherein an author's pen name comes to life to stalk him for doing away with him. Early on, I made the decision not to make any public connection between the two names. Why?

In 2005, Northcoast Shakedown sold reasonably well for a release by an unknown from a micropress that had trouble paying its Lightning Source bill. Had I made some different decisions, I'd have probably wrapped up the Kepler series a few years ago and moved onto thrillers or even finished the police novel sooner. So it could be done. I wanted to see if I could do it again.

A handful of people know the details. A couple think it's silly to keep the identities separate. One suggested I just stop being Jim, use the new name, and find another name for the science fiction. But I've already gone pretty far down the rabbit hole not to see this through. The new name has a lot invested in branding as science fiction, and I don't want to lose the ability to resell and repackage Nick Kepler.

And besides, it's fun. I'm not doing stupid things like having Twitter wars with myself (though I often joke about that). Sooner or later, the charade is going to collapse in on itself. I'd rather that be part of a game I and the readers can play. It's a lot of work to have two independent identities as a writer, but it lets me experiment a little with each.

Who knows? Evan Hunter and Ed McBain collaborated on a book once. Why can't "Dick" and I do that at some point?

09 March 2015

Me and the Derringers. (Maybe.)

At the end of my emergency room shift, I got a Twitter message that looked like this:

Quoi? Dr_sassy and the Derringers? That's never happened before. Sounds like a good band title, though.

My first thought was, Did someone tag me by accident? As in, they want me to know about the Derringer Award, which honours the best short mystery fiction published in the English language?

But another tag-ee, Britni Patterson, was already celebrating, so my heart kicked into high gear, just wondering if I was a chosen one.

And if so, which story was it? I had two eligible tales. “Because,” a biting tale of 490 words published in Fiction River: Crime, and “Gone Fishing,” a 12,000-word serialized Hope Sze novella commissioned by Kobo and kindly mentioned by Sleuthsayers last year.

I clicked on the link and found this Derringer short list:

For Best Flash (Up to 1,000 words)
  • Joseph D’Agnese, “How Lil Jimmy Beat the Big C” (Shotgun Honey, May 12, 2014)
  • Rob Hart, “Foodies” (Shotgun Honey, May 2, 2014)
  • Jed Power, “Sweet Smells” (Shotgun Honey, July 28, 2014)
  • Eryk Pruitt, “Knockout” (Out of the Gutter Online, August 31, 2014)
  • Travis Richardson, “Because” (Out of the Gutter Online, May 15, 2014)*
  • Melissa Yuan-Innes, “Because” (Fiction River: Crime, March 2014)*
Ah. Because.

I do love that story.

Warning: it’s extremely noir. I don’t find it scary, but then I face blood, guts, vomit and potentially Ebola every day in the emergency room. I’ve already alerted the SleuthSayers powers that be that I’m not especially cozy. I’ve written what I consider cozies, and I love Precious Ramotswe and Agatha Raisin, but I also regularly stare into the darkness and take notes. When I attended the Writers of the Future winners’ workshop in 2000 and turned in a pitiless story about werewolves, the Grand Prize winner, Gary Murphy, stared at me and said, “I can’t believe that such a sweet-looking woman wrote this!"

I laughed. I adore werewolves. And good stories of any stripe.

But Cozy Monday may need a new name. Any suggestions? Cozy or Not; Cozy and Noir; Alternatively Cozy Mondays (because I’ll bet Jan Grape can stick to one genre better than literary sluts like Fran Rizer and Melodie Campbell and me); Cozy and Crazy…hmm.

Back to the Derringer. Until now, I never really understood why awards have a short list. Well, I understood whittling down the list so that celebrity judges don’t need to plow through a mountain of stories.

But now I get the glory of the finalist. I’ve won other prizes in a binary announcement. Either I win the award or I don’t. But right now, the uncertainty makes it all the more treacherous and exciting!

If you're curious, I’ve published “Because” for free on my website for the next week only. You can download it to your friendly neighbourhood KindleKoboiBooks deviceSmashwordsor any format for a whopping 99 cents. That price will triple in a week. Please admire the cover photo by 28-year-old French photographer Olivier Potet. The non-cropped version is even better.

If Because tickled your fancy, you can also download Code Blues, the first Hope Sze novel, for free, as part of a bundle on Vuze, until March 16th.

And please tune in on March 23rd, when I plan to write about how medicine trains your mind for detective work. Watson, anyone?

08 March 2015

The Kaspersky Code

Three weeks ago, Kaspersky Lab, the Russian security software maker exposed a cyber-espionage operation that many believe originated within the NSA. The devilishly clever bit of code hides in the firmware of disc drives and has the ability to continuously infect a machine. If you use a Windows computer, there’s a good chance it’s not only infected but was built that way likely without the manufacturers' knowledge.
Kaspersky researcher Costin Raiu says the NSA couldn’t have done it without the source code.


The contention that the NSA definitely had access to the source code is not only patent nonsense, it ignores that fact that Kaspersky themselves supposedly didn’t have the code. Having the source code is the easy way, perhaps the preferred way, but it’s hardly the only way.

A Reuters article speculates how the NSA might have obtained the source code and indeed, one of those is a likely scenario. But it’s also feasible to do the job without the source and I’ll show you what I mean, a technique I used to unravel computer fraud programs. Fasten your seat belt because this is going to get technical.

World’s Greatest Puzzle

Those around in my Criminal Brief days know that I love puzzles. For me, the ultimate puzzle has been systems software programming, making the machine do what I want. But sometimes I’ve come up against puzzles, some benign, some not, where I didn’t have the source code.

Let’s try an example. What if we found mysterious code in our computer that looked something like this:

confused pseudo code snippet
Mysterious Snippet of Computer Code

If you can’t make sense out of this, you’re not alone. 98% of computer programmers wouldn’t know what to make of it either. But if you look closely, the data populating the upper block looks different from that in the lower block. This is a clue.

Unlike commercial and scientific programs, systems software deals with the operation of the computer itself– utilities, communications, and especially the operating system. The realm of a computer’s internals are abstract, far more so than the Tron movies. Key aspects seldom relate to real-world equivalents. Sure, we say that RAM is a little like notes spread out on your work table and that disc storage is kinda sorta like a file cabinet… but not really. Even the term RAM– random access memory– is misleading; there’s nothing random about it.

Back in the real world, let’s say you want to write a simple program that adds the number of apples and oranges. In most programming languages, this code would look like this:
total = apples + oranges
Internally, a program loads apples and oranges into registers (kind of like keying them into a calculator), adds them, and stores them in a variable called total. If we were to write this in the argot of the computer, we’d use assembly language mnemonics, an abstraction of the computer’s machine language. Deep, deep down in a program, we’d see nothing but numbers where we count…
0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F
Yes, A-F are digits in this context. Within the computer, our little program above might resemble…

simple pseudo-code program: total=apples+oranges
total = apples + oranges

What isn’t obvious to many programmers is that computer instructions are data. Indeed, some black-hat crackers (the bad guys) have used this property to sneak malware onto unsuspecting computers.

If you look again at the original sneak peek of data, you’ll start to see patterns and may even pick out the machine instructions from our code example above.

clarified pseudo code snippet
Less Mysterious Code Snippet

This puzzle solving is called reverse engineering. It’s possible to write a program called a disassembler (I have) or a de-compiler (I haven’t) to decode the machine language into something more intelligible. The program has to be smart enough to not only separate actual data from instructions, but distinguish the type of data.

As you see, compiling source into binary executable code isn’t a one-way street. With dedication and know-how, reversing the process is well within reach.

How safe do you feel now?

07 March 2015

Dialogue Is Like a Box of Chocolates

© zazzle.fr
To John Floyd’s dismay, his computer broke, busted, died, demised, kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil… He thus asked me, as if I'm a miracle worker, to resurrect an article from seven years ago. He then mentioned a bottle of Southern Comfort, so herein, John combines what John loves best… movies and lists. Say an incantation for John’s machine and enjoy a Hollywood golden oldie…
— Velma

by John M. Floyd

I’ve decided to make you an offer you can’t refuse. Awhile back I mentioned that I suspect most fiction readers enjoy movies too, and that fiction writers can sometimes learn almost as much from movie dialogue as from the written word. Surely that’s true — and don’t call me Shirley.

On that basis — and because I don’t need no steenking badges — I’ve put together a quiz of fifty movie quotes. They range from easy to hard, unless you’re a fellow victim of severe moviemania, in which case you’ll probably answer them all and then feel guilty as a result. To get in the mood, ask yourself these questions: Do I feel lucky? Can I handle the truth? Is it safe? Can I swim, or will the fall kill me? Do I need a bigger boat?

Anyway, I figured if I built it you would come, so I’ve rounded up the usual suspects. Many of these are crime/suspense because those are my favorite movies, but frankly, my dear, others are not, and what I’ve done on some might be a failure to communicate. Asterisks indicate final lines, and you get extra credit if you remember who said what, and to whom. So hasta la vista, baby — I wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner. Open the pod bay doors, Hal, and may the Force be with you …
  1. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
  2. Where’s that Joe Buck?
  3. Be careful, out there among them English.*
  4. In the end you wind up dying all alone on some dusty street. And for what? A tin star?
  5. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.
  6. You design TOY airplanes?
  7. Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool.
  8. I’m George, George McFly. I am your density. I mean … your destiny.
  9. He did it! He missed the barn!
  10. Remember me? I came in here yesterday and you wouldn’t wait on me. Big mistake.
  11. We in the FBI don’t have a sense of humor that I’m aware of.
  12. I saw it. It was a run-by fruiting.
  13. Any man don’t wanna get killed, better clear on out the back.
  14. Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip.
  15. That’s a negative, Ghostrider, the pattern is full.
  16. You can’t fight in here — this is the War Room.
  17. I’ve got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead.
  18. They say they’re going to repeal Prohibition. What will you do then? / I think I’ll have a drink.*
  19. All these things I can do, all these powers … and I couldn’t even save him.
  20. The next time I see Blue Duck, I’ll kill him for you.
  21. He can’t go down with three barrels on him. Not with three, he can’t.
  22. A wed wose. How womantic.
  23. How will you die, Joan Wilder? Slow, like a snail? Or fast, like a shooting star?
  24. Oh, my. I hope that wasn’t a hostage.
  25. I’ll take these Huggies and whatever you got in the register.
  26. He saved my life, and yours, and Arliss’s. You can’t just kill him, like he was nothin’!
  27. Stay on or get off? STAY ON OR GET OFF?
  28. Snake Plissken? I heard you were dead.
  29. And for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the finest pilot anyone had ever seen.*
  30. He kissed you? What happened next? / Then he had to go invade Libya.
  31. Nobody ever won a war by dying for his country. You win a war by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
  32. I wish they wouldn’t land those things here while we’re playing golf.
  33. Oh Captain, my Captain.
  34. I don’t reckon I got no reason to kill nobody.
  35. Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you knights of New England.
  36. Sometimes nothin’ can be a mighty cool hand.
  37. Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome.
  38. Talk to her, Dad. She’s a doctor. / Of what? Her first name could be Doctor.
  39. Come on, Hobbs, knock the cover off the ball.
  40. Way to go, Paula! Way to go.*
  41. I see you’ve been missing a lot of work. / Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it.
  42. I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.
  43. Docta Jones, Docta Jones! No more parachutes!
  44. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.
  45. I’m thinking your head would make a real good toilet brush.
  46. Left early. Please come with the money … or you keep the car. Love, Tommy.*
  47. Active is pinging back something really big.
  48. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.
  49. I need a ride in your el trucko to the next towno.
  50. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.
And this is me, signing off. Answers will be appear in an upcoming column — meanwhile, leave the gun, take the cannolis. Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.

HAL, close the pod door. Close the pod door. HAL…

06 March 2015

Life to Art and Almost Back

Life and art, sometimes one imitates the other.

St. Louis 1895

It was Christmas night. Two friends, Lee Shelton and William "Billy" Lyons were drinking in Bill Curtis's saloon down at 11th and Morgan Streets. Shelton, known by his nickname of Stag Lee or Stagger Lee, was a flashy pimp, part of a group of pimps called The Macks. He also worked as a carriage driver, was the Captain of the disreputable 400 Club and a political organizer for the Democrats. Billy Lyons worked as a levee hand, was part of the St. Louis criminal underworld and was a political organizer for the Republican Party. After several drinks, the two men began to argue. Some say it was over a gambling situation, some say it was politics and others say it had to do with the Stetson hat Stagger Lee was wearing.

Stagger Lee (#1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959)
   ~first written lyrics appeared in 1912

     The night was clear and the moon was yellow
     And the leaves came tumbling down

     I was standing on the corner when I heard my bulldog bark
     He was barkin' at two men who were gamblin' in the dark
     It was Stagger Lee and Billy, two men who gambled late
     Stagger Lee threw seven, Billy swore that he threw eight

Kansas City 1973

Twin was standing on the corner with a small group of street gangsters in a bad part of Kansas City on the Missouri side. They were throwing dice for money when an old friend, Thomas, decided to join the group. Thomas was one of our informants against the heroin trade. He had already testified in federal grand jury for a second wave of indictments and was now working on his third wave of smack dealers. We'd arrested the first two groups of dealers and some of them had gotten out on bond. By now, everyone knew Thomas was our snitch, but he was slick enough to make them believe that was "then," in order for him to stay out of jail, and this was now. Supposedly, he was finished with working for the man and had returned to his old ways of dealing smack. Could have sold sand to an Arab.

Meanwhile, being involved in prostitution, gambling, dope dealing and bank robbery, Twin was a hard-core member of the old Black Mafia, as was his recently incarcerated brother with the nickname of Twin Brother. They'd both been involved in a bank robbery, but Twin Brother volunteered to take the fall, leaving Twin out on the streets to make some money for their future. However on this night, the dice were running against Twin and he was in a bad mood. Some say a killing mood.


St. Louis  1895

The story on Stagger Lee and Billy was first covered by The St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Allegedly, when Stagger Lee and Billy got into their argument, Billy grabbed Lee's Stetson hat and refused to give it back. It's also possible there was some mutual hat bashing between the two. In any case, Stagger Lee became enraged, pulled his .44 and shot Billy in the gut. He then calmly picked up his hat and left. Billy was taken to the Dispensary where his wounds were pronounced as serious and he expired shortly afterward.

Stagger Lee

     Stagger Lee told Billy, "I can't let you go with that"
     "You done won all my money and my brand new Stetson hat"
     Stagger Lee went home and he got his forty-four
     Said, "I'm goin' to the barroom just to pay the debt I owe"
     Stagger Lee went to the barroom and he stood across the barroom door
     He said, "Nobody move" and he pulled his forty-four

           *                     *                     *                    *

     Stagger Lee shot Billy, oh he shot that poor boy so bad
     'Til the bullet went through Billy and it broke the bartender's glass

Kansas City 1973

Back on the street corner, Twin's mood was dark and getting darker. With the dice running Thomas's way, he kept on taking what little money Twin had left. The other gangsters, glad to have someone else as the object of Twin's wrath, slowly backed away until it was only Twin and Thomas in the game. Both men were wearing their pimp Stetsons. Twin angrily accused Thomas of cheating. Thomas loudly denied it as he reached for the money lying on the sidewalk. Twin drew his pistol and aimed at Thomas's face. Still bent over to get the money, Thomas reacted with exaggerated street cool and did the one thing that saved his life. He thrust his index fingers into his ears and screwed up his face as if the loudness of the gun going off would hurt his eardrums. Twin broke up laughing and the crisis passed.


St. Louis  1895 - 1912 The Aftermath

Stagger Lee was arrested, bond set at $4,000 and a grand jury subsequently indicted him for first degree murder. Six months later, pawnbroker Morris H. Smit paid a $3,000 bond and Lee was released. At a July 18th trial, the jury came back with a split decision. Seven voted for second degree murder, two for manslaughter and three for acquittal. In August of 1897, Lee's successful attorney, a morphine addict, died after a drinking binge. Six weeks later during a retrial with a different defense attorney, Lee was quickly found guilty of murder and sentenced to 25 years in the notorious Jefferson Prison in Jeff City, Missouri. The governor saw fit to pardon Lee in 1909, but the die was cast. After two years of freedom, Stag Lee committed a fatal home invasion and got sent back to Jeff City. The governor pardoned him again, but it was too late. This time, Lee left his prison cell in a casket.

Kansas City  1973 Aftermath

Twin went off to federal prison for delivering a quantity of cocaine to a house where my partner and I met him at the door. Happened that a different informant had made a phone call and ordered up the coke. Twin's luck ran bad again.

Thomas went on to be shot a couple of times by his cousin while they were standing on opposite sides of the cousin's screen door. Seems Thomas was upset that his cousin was poaching on Thomas's woman. Thomas, decked out in his best pimp Stetson, showed up on the cement porch and banged on the door. His cousin, whose repose was rudely interrupted that early morning by the loud banging, was clad only in his black, silk boxer shorts during the time that the two men blew holes at each other through the screen. Both combatants came up ventilated, but went on to survive the experience.

Life and Art

Shortly after the latter incident, I left KC for another post of duty. Never did hear what finally happened to Twin and Thomas, though I expect with their life style, sooner or later they were going to come up short.

However, I did wonder about one set of circumstances. If Twin had shot and killed Thomas that night on the street corner, would Twin have ended up with his own folk song? He was already a legend in the criminal world. So, would some blues writer have felt the urge to compose a parallel to the popular Stagger Lee ballad?

Guess we'll never know.

05 March 2015

It Costs You Nothing To Be Gracious

by Brian Thornton

Today's blog post brought to you by two seemingly unrelated things:

Left Coast Crime, and how a guy who used to teach in an MFA (short for "Master's of Fine Arts") program tried to break the Internet.

Quick thumbnail, and then I'll dive right in.

A Thumping Good Time Will Definitely Be Had By All!
First, Left Coast Crime.

Next week hundreds of crime fiction fans/writers/industry professionals will descend on the unsuspecting city of Portland, Oregon for the 2015 Left Coast Crime Conference! LCC is *ALWAYS* a thumping good time. How many of you  among the Sleuthsayer Faithful are planning to attend?

Thumbnail delivered, and now on to the second part of this week's post (We'll come back to Left Coast in a bit).

Second, last week a guy who lives not too far from me tried to break the Internet.

The brick with which Ryan Boudinot shattered many a cyber glass house was a little article called "Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One." If you're not familiar with it, go take a look. I'll wait.

To summarize for those of you too busy/lazy/diffident/tech-ignorant to bother with clicking on the link above, in his piece Mr. Boudinot makes the following points:

1. Talent exists.
2. Talent does not exist in easily quantifiable amounts.
3. Talent is not equally distributed among human beings.
4. Some of us possess much more talent at some things than at others.
5. Number 4. above includes writing.

He said a lot of other things as well, but that was the basic gist (I'm not touching the contention that he supposedly advocated for more child abuse in the world. That clearly springs from a willful misreading of his work.). The response was immediate and ferocious. (You can find one example here.)

I'm in no position to wrestle with either Mr. Boudinot, or with any of his fans/detractors over the question of what does or does not constitute "talent." As a veteran of exactly ONE creative writing class during the too-long run of my college career, I'm hardly in a position to set myself up as any sort "final arbiter" of such things (For what it's worth, my sole sally into the wild and wonderful world of college creative writing courses was a million miles away from anything so prestigious as a Master-of-Fine-Arts program. It was a crime-fiction writing class taught by my favorite Shakespeare professor. I got an "A." I don't count the time I applied for admission into a middle-level creative writing MFA program, because they had the good sense to cash my application check and then to deny my application.).

Which is not to say that I don't have something to add to the dialogue. Well, TWO somethings, actually.

First: "There are many paths to God."

Second: "It costs you nothing to be gracious."

There Are Many Paths to God

One glorious Summer day several years ago, I was volunteering with a couple of friends at a recruiting table for one of the writing associations of which I am a dues-paying member, trying to scare up new membership at one of many local writer-focused events. A sea of humanity surged all around us during the breaks between author/agent/publishing professional panels, and we were trying to get the word out about this association for which we volunteered so much of our own time.

At one point in the afternoon, with most of those in attendance squirreled away attending panels, a mid-list author with whom I had a barely nodding acquaintance stalked past our table, stopped, turned, came back, stood in front of it, glared straight at me and said, "What can (Association name redacted) do for me?"

Now, this guy's debut thriller had sold pretty well when published the previous year, and he had a sequel due out that Fall. His publisher had devoted significant resources to publicizing his work.

In other words, this was kind of his moment.

This might be the appropriate time to mention that I am the author of multiple books (nine and counting, ten if you count the one I ghost-wrote), all of which I have sold and all of which have made money. Furthermore, I owe the initial contact with the woman who would eventually become first my editor and then my agent to a networking opportunity afforded me by this same association.

So I began to explain the networking opportunities available to our friend, the mid-lister. He didn't let me get far, before he cut me off, snapping, "I'm already a member. And everything I've gotten in this industry I've gotten on my own."

I couldn't quite figure out what he was really peeved about. So I asked him whether he'd even tried out the networking opportunities afforded by (Association name redacted). He confessed he hadn't. Said they wouldn't have worked for him.

And it hit me.

He didn't want to talk about (Association name redacted)'s networking opportunities. He wanted to talk about how well he was doing, and how bright his future looked.

So I smiled my most disarming smile (which isn't saying much) at him, and said, "There are many paths to God, (Author's name redacted)."

When he understandably gave me a blank stare in response, I grinned and briefly-and I hope, kindly-explained how networking through (Association name redacted) had jump-started my own writing career, and invited both of my friends working the booth with me to share their own success stories.

The point was that in this self-pub, ebook world, there is no magic bullet that will automatically guarantee publishing success, and there are certainly no gatekeepers keeping those who want to be heard from putting their work out there.

Here is where maxim number two comes in to play.

It Costs You Nothing to Be Gracious

The point made, I moved on and mentioned hearing about (Author's name redacted)'s recent publishing success, congratulated him on it, then asked how his next book project was coming along, what was next for him, etc.

Hey, it was his moment.

What's more, nothing I said would have changed the trajectory of this guy's writing career. His second book would neither succeed nor tank based on something I said or didn't say. Showing him up by pointing out how many books I'd published would have no positive effect on even the outcome of this particular conversation.

When I asked my wonderful wife to proofread this post, she mentioned a quote she'd read by the great Maya Angelou: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

I couldn't agree more. I only wish I'd said that first.

And this, in turn, brings me back to Mr. Boudinot's article in The Stranger. I cannot for the life of me figure out what he hoped to accomplish with it.

I have been a member of a critique group for the last eight or so years. Over that time we've had people come in, leave, come back, leave again. It's been a pretty fluid line-up. From the beginning we established that the first question each of us should ask when commencing a critique of one another's work is, "How can I help improve this piece?"

I can't help but wonder whether Mr. Boudinot asked this sort of question when looking at the work of his students. Did he ever ask it? Did he ask it up to a certain point, and then stop? Was he just burned out?

(Based on a reading of both his initial essay and a follow-up interview he gave to one of The Stranger's writers, I am leaning toward "burn-out".)

Because who in this day of self/e-pub, gets to be the final arbiter on who ought to put their back into their writing, and who ought not waste their time? It's not as if Ryan Boudinot is handing out book contracts.

I mean, come ON. Plenty of lousy writers publish plenty of lousy books every year. So do plenty of GOOD writers, for that matter. And who among us has not read a novel we knew was lousy and enjoyed it anyway?

Like Maya Angelou said, it's about how you make people (in this case, the reader) FEEL.

I know an incredibly gifted writer who has written a cracking, kick-ass first crime novel and then spent the past several years alternately noodling with it and setting it aside, rather than putting it out there for readers to enjoy. Would someone like this be well-served by a dose of Mr. Boudinot's tough love?

I think not.

I myself am hardly an example of the type of writer Mr. Boudinot seems to prefer. I didn't decide I wanted to write professionally until my early 30s (In his essay he expresses the opinion that people who "commit" to writing in their late teens/early 20s are the only ones who will likely be worth reading.). What's more, I didn't write the first eight that I published out of some burning commitment to either the craft or to the subject matter (although the one I wrote about Abraham Lincoln comes close). I wrote them because I made very little money at my regular job and because someone looked at my writing and saw potential, and offered me money to write about a variety of subjects.

So I took the money and wrote.

And wrote.

And wrote.

I suspect that this experience counts as its own kind of MFA experience.

To circle back around and tie all of the above back in with Left Coast Crime, I have to say I'm grateful to Mr. Budinot for writing his essay and to The Stranger for publishing it. What's more, I'm even more grateful for the timing of it.

Because we as writers possess the wonderful ability to do what Maya Angelou mentioned in the bit I quoted above: to make people feel. I think it behooves us to recall that when we dive into the maelstrom which is a writing conference. So many panels to take in! So many friends to catch up with! So many new books to find out about! So many new people to meet!

So if you're going to Left Coast Crime, look me up. Mention the words "Maya Angelou," and I just might buy you a drink, or buy your book.

Or both!

See you at Left Coast!

04 March 2015

By way of emphasis

by Robert Lopresti

I have been polishing up a piece of fiction and last week the editor sent me a note, which I am paraphrasing: "You use italics too much.  It's like you don't have faith the reader will get it."

Well, that was a surprise.  No one had ever said that to me before.

But to be honest I seldom get criticism from editors.  Rejections, sure.  But usually the only helpful hint is, "It's compelling but doesn't meet our current needs," which I assume translates, "This thing could cause seizures in goats." 

So I was grateful for an actual functional suggestion.  I looked over my piece and there were indeed a lot of italics.  They seemed to serve many purposes.  To demonstrate, consider this freshly invented paragraph.

"Like a production of Macbeth on the Titanic, Jack's day was turning into a bloody disaster.  How do I get out of this one?  He looked ahead and gasped.  'I wasn't expecting you.'   Now things were getting really bad."

That's five different uses of italics, way too many for a single paragraph of course, but are any of them problematic in themselves?  Macbeth is  italicized as a standalone work of literature.  (Book titles, music CDs, and TV series are italicized; short stories, songs, and TV episodes get quotation marks.  I spend a lot of time explaining this to college students.)  Proper names of vehicles, like Titanic, also get the italics treatment.

The third example, a full sentence, is using italics to indicate a character's thought.  I could have said "'How I get out of this one?' Jack wondered," but it seemed better the other way.  Didn't it?

"I wasn't expecting you,"  is trying to capture how people talk, and to make it clear that Jack was expecting someone else, not failing to expect anyone.

Then we get to "getting really bad..."  which may be the dodgiest of the lot.  It is emphasizing a word that describes Jack's thinking but is not part of his thought.

So, do you agree some of these should go?  Which ones?  And how do you feel about italics in general?

But before I deposit you in the Comments Department, I have a few more things to say about italics. 

In the wonderful book Just My Type Simon Garfield reports that italics were probably invented by a goldsmith named Francisco Griffo around 1500.  He wasn't trying to emphasize words, just save space on the page. 

A few months ago I found myself editing two stories for different markets.  At precisely the same time I was changing the italics in one story to underlines, and the underlines in the other story to italics.  It seems like the industry could agree on one standard, doesn't it?

Of course, in modern publishing underlining began as a way to indicate italics on a typewriter that didn't have them.  So maybe there is no need for that anymore.  But to my elderly eyes, underlining is easier to spot on a typed page than italics.  Again, what do you think?

And now, I'm out of here.

03 March 2015

Her Terrible Beauty

The title of this piece just happens to be the title of my latest story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  This is not a coincidence.  I am utilizing my God-given right to promote my work in lieu of the huge monthly check I would normally receive from our generous paymaster, Leigh Lundin.  But I will not just promote, but educate as well, sprinkling tidbits of information throughout that cannot possibly be found on the internet.  For instance: Saint Patrick's Day is two weeks from today.

Yes, only a few hundred million of us woke up knowing this today.  What the devil does it have to do with my latest groundbreaking literary effort?  Very little, actually, but since this auspicious occasion just happens to be coming up, I thought I'd smoothly weave it in.  Just watch my handiwork.

My story takes place in antebellum Alabama, circa 1831, within the diocese of Mobile and concerns a brother and sister, murders and miracles, duels and deceptions.  It ends with a hanging.  St. Patrick has nothing to do with any of it.  Yet, if you go to Mobile, as I have, and visit the magnificent Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception you will discover a small, unique statue of him situated to the right of the altar.  If you look up, and you should, you will find a ceiling exquisitely rendered in gold leaf patterns of alternating fleur-de-lis and shamrocks, heraldic symbols of both France and Ireland.  Mobile, like most of the Gulf Coast, was originally colonized by the French and, in fact, it was here that the first Mardi Gras was celebrated in North America; not in New Orleans.  This was in 1703--another fun fact.  It is celebrated in Mobile to this day. 

How did St. Patrick sneak into this decidedly French environment, you may ask?  The answer lies with all the Irish priests and bishops entombed in the vault beneath the Cathedral.  In those days, the Irish were mighty and prodigious evangelizers of the Catholic faith and were forever charging into the breach.  It appears that they charged into the Mobile colony.  The French and the Irish have a long relationship actually, as both have found themselves squared off repeatedly with their mutual enemy, the English.  One happy result of this alliance was Hennessey Cognac; another the breathtaking ceiling of the Cathedral.  More fun facts as promised.

My protagonist opens the story with a request for one of these priests (French or Irish, it doesn't matter).  He wishes to prepare himself for his impending exit from this perplexing world of ours.  A rider is sent to Mobile to fetch one.  Thus begins our tale of madness and murder.  It's in the March/April issue along with many fine tales by such notables as Doug Allyn, Dave Zeltserman, S.J. Rozan, Loren D. Estleman, Marilyn Todd, and more!  I hope that you will get a copy of this issue, and that if you do, you find your visit to L.A. (Lower Alabama) interesting.

P.S. During my time here the news broke of Harper Lee's impending book release.  This was big down here as Monroeville, a nearby community, is both Ms. Lee's home and the setting for "To Kill A Mockingbird."

P.P.S. Oh yes, almost forgot, our fellow SleuthSayer, Dale Andrews, vacations yearly in nearby Gulf Shores, Alabama--a final fun fact.

02 March 2015

Rain and Snow and Driving

One thing that might seem strange to people who live in the Northeast or Northern states is how a quarter inch of ice or a half inch of snow causes such a mess in TX. There is one simple answer. We DO NOT know how to drive on ice or snow. We don't even know how to drive in the rain.

Tonight, I was returning home from having dinner with my sister and brother-in-law, in Austin, (a forty-five mile one way trip) and it was misty, rainy and foggy, not cold enough to freeze, but just messy with iffy visibility. Most of the way home, it was still daylight although the sky and the light was steely gray. I was driving five to eight miles under the speed limit and trying my best to keep a safe distance from the car in front of me. Cars were screaming past me going ten, fifteen miles faster (this was in either a 60 or 70 mph area) and some cars tried to stay on my bumper. I was driving slowly enough that they soon zipped around me. But as soon as they cleared my front-end they cut back in my lane in front of me.

Happy birthday to Jan from SleuthSayers
Okay, I'll admit tonight I was driving like the proverbial "little old lady," but I did have a birthday yesterday and turned sixty-sixteen, so I'm allowed on occasion. More importantly, the idea of a car wreck is not my idea of Sunday night fun. When it's sunny and daylight or even at night, I do drive somewhat like a bat out of hell. I trust myself, my tires, and my brakes.

Sadly if a little rain, or ice or snow falls in Texas, it's as if a neon sign turns on inside too many brains, "go fast, we've got to get home NOW." Drivers turn into guys from Talladega Nights. We also have no snow tires or chains or snow plows. About the best our towns and counties and cities can do is dump sand on our bridges and overpasses. And even a small amount of rain can get dangerous because the oily residue on the streets and highways gets slippery when mixed with a misty rain.

Fortunately, I made it home safely and my car and body thanks me. One badly broken right humerus bone requiring surgery, a steel plate and ten screws is enough injury for me. Even though it was in 2007, when it's cold, it reminds me I'd just as soon not break another bone ever.

We even let our schools out early and send children home. Mainly because with even a small amount of snow or ice and no snow plows, a large number of kids live in suburban or even country areas and it's too dangerous to take a chance with a bus load of kids.

So everyone laughs at us but we're just not equipped to handle it and besides all that, we freeze to death when the temperatures get below fifty. Our blood is way too thin for those temperatures. However, it's not unusual to see a female in short shorts, a sweatshirt hoodie and cowboy boots heading into the bank or the grocery store. Yesterday, it was 35 degrees and windy and I saw a man with walking shorts on. I imagine these folks are transplanted from Minnesota or New Hampshire or Alaska and 35° just is a nice cool day for them. Bless their little hearts.

Sorry my report isn't very long today. I have a sore typing finger. I got a nasty cut on the knuckle of my right index finger and it's much better but typing is aggravating it. But, you say, I saw you posting on Facebook, Jan, what's with that? When I use my phone or my tablet, I use a stylus and it doesn't hurt my fingers. This blog note has to be written on my laptop and that entrails typing.

Did anyone pick up my malapropism in that last sentence? I always thought malapropisms came directly from Mrs. Malaprop in the Broadway play "The Rivals." I suppose that play happened to make malapropisms more widely known but Mark Twain used them and even William Shakespeare wrote a few in his plays. I have no idea where that bit of trivia came from but malapropisms have been on my mind today. Go figure.

Okay, class, off to soak my right index finger in ice.

01 March 2015

Name Recognition

Leonard Nimoy
by Leigh Lundin

Jan Grape recently wrote an article, Me and Elvis, a charming reflection of the great singer. I can’t quite bring myself to title this one Me and Spock, but yes, I crossed paths with the actor.

As you know, Leonard Nimoy died Friday. I grok hard science fiction and Star Trek was about as close as one could get to real sci-fi on the small screen. Moreover, Spock was the character who made the TOS (the original series) worth watching. Even my Aunt Rae had a crush on him!

Nimoy appeared in various other rôles, but to me, he was always Spock. I admit I never saw his first film, Kid Monk Baroni, which Nimoy described as “the sort of film that made unknowns out of celebrities.” Beyond Star Trek, I thought he was particularly good as a narrator featured in Ripley’s Unexplained, In Search of, and Ancient Mysteries.

Leonard Nimoy
After Star Trek, Nimoy became famously thin-skinned about Spock, even writing a biography titled I am not Spock, referring to his identity crisis and a love-hate relationship with the character. He grew additionally alienated (pardon that pun) when Gene Roddenberry screened Star Trek blooper reels at fan conventions, further distancing himself from the rôle. Twenty years later, Nimoy would relent with a second autobiography called I am Spock, but in the 1970s, he became notorious for refusing to acknowledge the character. That’s the time when he and I crossed paths… a less than stellar performance as you'll see.

In Boston, my girlfriend and I were walking down a long corridor when in the distance I saw the actor strolling toward us. I wanted to alert my girl, but the only name I could think of was Spock… Spock… What the hell was his real name?

Leonard Nimoy as Spock
As we drew closer, my brain worked feverishly to dredge up the man’s name… No, not Spock… not Spock… What was it?

Within feet of the man, the name surfaced. I leaned over and said, “That’s Neonard Limoy.”


My words were apparently not quite soft enough because– damn those pointy ears– both Nimoy and my date shot peculiar sidelong glances at me.

Okay, okay, I never claimed to be articulate, but that’s my Neonard Limoy Leonard Nimoy story.