Sunday, October 15, 2017

Once Again, The Talent Question...

At the Candy Dance Festival three weeks ago where I was exhibiting my books, I spoke to a woman who has read all of my books and been supportive of my work for years. This woman is also a professional singer. Our conversation veered toward artistic skills. Immediately, I sensed a frustration that I know well.

She said that people have always made statements to her along the lines of, "Oh, it must be so wonderful to have such singing talent." And, "How great to have been born with such a voice!"

Before I could respond, she added, "While I'm so pleased and flattered that they like what I do, I want to shout, 'It isn't talent! And I wasn't born with my voice! It took decades of constant, never-ending work to develop my voice and singing skills.'"

I told her about the common experience of writers hearing people say, "I'd love to write, if only I had the talent."

I used my oft-repeated example of the figure skater. Writing (and singing and painting and dancing and acting etc.) is not something you are born knowing how to do. Nor can you learn just by studying. Studying is of course great. Classes and how-to books and support groups and critique circles and youtube videos are all smart to pursue. They are very useful and well worth the time. But learning to write is only accomplished by doing it. Just like figure skating.

You can be born with excellent bio-mechanics. And you can be born with a well-made brain and nervous system to control your muscles.

But all the natural abilities in the world won't make it so you can strap on a pair of skates and go out and do a triple-twisting leap.

You have to put in 10,000 hours on the ice, practicing over and over. That is the only way to learn to be a competent figure skater.

Or singer. Or actor. Or painter. Or musician. Or dancer. Or writer.

It's true that you can't succeed at these things if you don't have some basic brains or motor abilities. But the professional singer talking to me at the Candy Dance festival is right. It isn't talent. It's many years work.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

I'm Teaching A One-Day Mystery Writing Workshop

Have you ever had the urge to try writing a mystery novel and wondered just how you would start? Or maybe you've already started but could use some help structuring your plot and creating fascinating characters.

I've got just the workshop for you.

On Saturday, October 21st, I'm teaching a one-day workshop at the Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. The workshop is called, How To Map A Murder, and it runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Imagine writing your own murder mystery, full of intrigue and thrills,
and a whodunnit puzzle that will keep readers up at night

The workshop will be held at the college's Meadowood Center near the Meadowood Mall. The cost is only $59, and in addition to learning the basics of mapping a murder, you will have the opportunity to ask any and all questions about writing.

Here's the link to sign up:

https://truckee.augusoft.net/index.cfm?method=ClassInfo.ClassInformation&int_class_id=24261#

Come join us! It will be fun!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Reno Literary Crawl

Two weeks ago, on September 16, I participated in the Reno Literary Crawl. What a great event!


There were dozens of authors who gave talks and readings and participated on panels. I didn't get a count of how many readers attended, but it seemed like hundreds.

The events were scheduled three at a time, at multiple venues around Reno, from the Nevada Museum to Sundance Books to many of the old mansions that stretch north from downtown Reno toward the river.

I sat on a panel about publishing and I also participated in a reading about suspense called "Things That Go Bump In The Night."

The keynote talk was by Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson, Stanford professor and author of the The Orphan Master's Son. Johnson spoke at the Nevada Museum.

The closing party was at Sundance Books, which went all out with music in their large yard and poetry performances up on the mansion's deck. There was a food truck, and the place was strung with festive lights.

The vibe among some attendees was, "All this in Reno? Who knew?!" Other attendees seemed to take it for granted, as if they have known for years that Reno is a literary hotspot.

This impressive gathering celebrating the written word was put on by the Nevada Humanities. Here's the link:
http://nevadahumanities.org/programs/nevada-humanities-literary-crawl

I highly recommend you make plans to attend next year. I know I will.

A large crowd in the yard listened to a poetry reading up on the balcony of the Sundance Bookstore mansion, just behind the Nevada Museum.


Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Real Reason To Lock Doors In Tahoe

People in law enforcement will tell you to lock your doors. They know better than to think, "My neighborhood is so safe, we don't lock our doors." They know the standard upside/downside aspect of door locking. The upside is, locked doors may save your life. The downside is that you have to turn the knob. Pretty clear choice, right?

In Tahoe, we have another reason to lock doors! Bears know how to open doors. House doors. Car doors. 

Do you want to walk in on this guy as he goes through your refrigerator?
My wife and I stood on the other side of our slider and watched a young bear - probably two years old or less and only 150 pounds - carefully hooking his claws onto the edge of the glass. He didn't mind that we were just inches from the glass telling him to go away. My wife banged pan lids together like cymbals. Maybe he thought the percussion meant a party was going on, a party with party food. Had the door been unlocked, he would have come in even though we were there. Fortunately, the door was locked. He eventually gave up.

Some neighbors down the street woke up to the barking of their dog. They went downstairs and found the living room slider open and a bear in the kitchen. The bear didn't mind the dog. It had more important things on his mind. Like mint chocolate chip ice cream.

A woman we know was camping with her boyfriend. They woke up to the honking horn of their pickup. When they shined flashlights, they saw that a bear had gotten inside the truck and managed to close the door while it was inside. Panicked, it ripped the inside of the truck apart. And every time it spun around, it bumped into the horn

Of course, just like human burglars, bears can enter a house or vehicle even if it's locked. But, also like humans, bears tend to take the easiest targets. A potential food source that isn't locked up is the most attractive.

Takeaway? Lock your doors.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Warning, Charities May Be Stealing Your Money. Here's What To Look For.

As some of you know, my new title, Tahoe Payback, has a backstory about scam charities.

I expected to get a lot of blow back from people protesting the very concept that not all charities are squeaky-clean good. I also expected to get trolled from people who are in the scam charity business and don't like that I'm bringing some attention to issue.

Instead, I've gotten many emails from people who have worked for and seen the inside of charities, both good and bad. Every person has supported what my book reveals. Some have been very vocal about how important it is to inform the public about scam charities. Some have seen fraud up close and are outraged.

It occurred to me that I should offer a few points about how to tell a good charity from a bad one.

First, let me explain that there are, in my mind, three major categories of charities.

1) The first category is small charities, often local to a single area, that are run by volunteers. These charities, whether they provide soup kitchens or homeless shelters or college scholarships for local high school students or literacy programs for poor kids or rescue organizations for abused animals or shelters for refugees are almost universally good. The key, to me, seems to be that they are run by volunteers. When no one is being paid by the charity, no one seems to look at the incoming revenue as a potential personal bonanza. Add to that a requirement that two people have to sign off on every expense and you end up with a clean non-profit that is run by people who only want to do good stuff. I could add that my limited research suggests that these charities nearly always have annual revenue under $1 million.



2) The second category is large charities with a nationwide or even international footprint.  These are the names we all know. Because they have a high profile, there is a fair amount of oversight from not just their board of directors but also from the press. Yes, their CEOs make very large salaries. And yes, the charities have huge revenues (often in the billions of dollars a year) that allow for an enormous range of expenses that are hard to track. And yes, when you take a close look at their 990 form filings (that by law are public) you often see uncomfortable things, like no fundraising expense listed on the "fundraising expense" line. We know they hire telemarketers to fill our mailboxes with solicitations and call us at dinnertime. But they bury those expenses in categories like "program expenses." Why? To make it look like they spend a greater proportion of their revenue on charitable activities.

When a huge charity fudges the numbers, it makes for a lot of discomfort. Why not just be honest? We are trusting them with our hard-earned donations. Why shouldn't they just tell the truth?

The bottom line is that while the huge charities do good work, they also engage in shady reporting. But in the end, they are probably worth supporting.

3) The third category of charities is the mid-sized ones, with annual revenues from $1 million to $100 million. These are the ones that seem to be fertile territory for fraud. Why? They aren't big enough to get lots of scrutiny from the general public or the press or the state attorneys general. The directors on the boards are often friends of the person running the charity. Those board members may share in the benefits that come to the management of an unscrupulous organization. The charity is small enough that there aren't a lot of employees who might get a good sense of what's going on and report it to authorities. Like any small or medium sized business, there is often just one person who is "in charge" and who really knows what's going on. And every other employee just does as they're told. If the person or people in charge manipulate the revenue and the required IRS 990 filings to produce a huge personal benefit to themselves, who's to know? A charity that takes in $1 million plus each year can send along a majority of the revenue to "business expenses" that ultimately end up in the manager's pocket.

How, you ask? While my book Tahoe Payback explains some of the ways, I'll just mention one here. A charity can hire a fundraising company to raise revenue. The fundraising company can charge a huge percentage of the incoming revenue as a fee to raise the money. The charity might end up paying 85% to the fundraising company, justifying the expense by saying that keeping only 15% of the money is better than nothing. So, even if the fundraising seems an excessive expense, is that wrong or is it just unfortunate?

Consider this: What if the fundraising company is a for-profit company owned by the manager of the charity? Or maybe it's owned by the charity manager's brother-in-law or son. However unethical that seems, it's legal. And it happens all the time.

If you have no ethics or moral code, you can set up a charity that claims to help kids with cancer, and you can send out mailers with pictures of seriously ill children. You might collect tens of millions of dollars from people who think they're improving the lives of sick kids. But most of the money those hard-working contributors send in goes directly to the fundraising company, which, in actuality, is your own bank account.

Outraged? Me too.

How to tell if a charity is like that? First, notice the solicitations they send out. If they are garish mailers with little windows showing cash or check inside, if they have lots of scary writing on the outside of the envelope, if the letter inside shows heart-stopping pictures of starving children or wounded veterans or old people with dementia, consider the charity very suspect. These are tactics you'll recognize from supermarket checkout tabloids. If the solicitation makes a bold play on your emotions and your sympathies, look out. Next, Google the charity's name accompanied by the words, 'legitimate or scam.' Spend some time reading the links that Google sends you to.

Another educational approach is to Google 'Worst charities' and see what organizations like CNN or Forbes say about them. Go to those 'worst' charity websites and notice the tactics they use to solicit money. This is your primer on what to watch out for.

One more thing: There are many agencies that rate charities. Most of them are non-profits themselves, and some if not most of the rating agencies are run by the charities they recommend! Yes, it's appalling.

So my recommendation is this. Find small, local charities that benefit your community. Charities that are 100% run by volunteers. Fund them. Don't fund any charity that comes to you with a fancy sales job. Whether you have $100 to donate or $1 million, if you send it to a company that tries to coerce you with pictures of people in great stress, your money may go to pay for the private airplane of the person running the charity. Instead, use your money to pay for, as an example, the local soup kitchen's grocery bill. Because the kitchen is run by volunteers, you can visit and actually see what you are funding. If the charities you choose to support provide services that you can personally see, and no one is getting paid with your donation, you are a thousand times less likely to waste your money.

There are thousands of good non-profit companies out there doing good work. They are mostly run by dedicated volunteers. And they almost never use slick sales brochures and over-the-top, hence revolting solicitations to hustle your emotions.

Good Luck!


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Bears Like A Morning Walk, Too


Life in Tahoe...

I was out early on a recent morning, before any cars or dogs and joggers had appeared. Along came a nearby resident. He stopped and turned toward me and took a long look, wondering, I suppose, if my presence might represent any opportunities. A fresh-baked apple pie I'd left out to cool? Groceries forgotten for a moment in the open back of the car? He obviously decided that I was boring, and he turned and strolled down the street.  

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Beyond Astonishment, Solar Eclipse 2017

Like everyone else, we'd seen partial solar eclipses. The moon moves in front of the sun, and, looking through special really dark glasses you can see it. But when the moon completely blots out the sun, you can take off your special glasses and see the sun's corona. It is Magic.

In all of the solar system, and, probably, in all of most other solar systems, there is nothing so amazing as a perfect, total solar eclipse. Many people probably just think that a solar eclipse is a curiosity, beautiful to see if you get the chance. But the fact that our moon is the perfect size and distance from us to occasionally block out the sun, is amazing. For you geek wannabes, the moon at 2159 miles in diameter is about 1/400th the diameter of the sun (864,576 miles in diameter). And the sun is about 400 times as far from us as the moon. So line them up, and they take up, from our viewpoint, an equal size in space. How amazing is that?


This photo was actually after totality, i.e., the moon began to nibble at the sun at the 1 o'clock position on the dial, moved from upper right to lower left, and exited its passage at 7 o'clock on the dial. The actual time of passage where we were was from a bit after 9 a.m. to a bit after 11:30 a.m.

My wife and I had never seen a total eclipse. So when I first became aware of the eclipse, I started doing a little research on the most reliable cloudless weather in the path of totality. A year ago, I made hotel reservations in Boise, Idaho, which wasn't actually in the path of totality but was a mere 70 miles down the interstate from not just totality but the center of totality. For those of you who aren't closet science geeks, the reason that mattered to me was that the total time of totality varies from slightly over 2 minutes in the center of the path to just seconds near the edge of totality. I figured if I were going to drive for the better part of two days each way, I wanted to get the maximum effect. 

After all, a four-day round trip to see a two minute show that might not even happen due to cloud cover, was a bit of a gamble. How did it turn out? It was astonishing! 

Here's why. In a partial eclipse, even one with as much as 99% coverage by the moon, the portion of the sun that is still visible shines at its full power. So even though there is just a tiny bit of sun showing, it is still like having a super bright spotlight shining down from the sky. The overall world darkens a lot, and the birds start flying around trying to figure out what's going on. But you still can't look directly at the sun without your super dark glasses. 

But when you upgrade your eclipse from 99% to 100%, it feels like upgrading from the concept of God to actually sitting down with her in the flesh and sharing a beer. 

This is known as the Diamond Ring effect. A moment before totality and a moment after totality, you see what looks like a brilliant gem. This is the sun's light just barely bursting around the edge of the moon.

Totality is something difficult to describe. Here's how it played out. 

We left our Boise hotel at 5 a.m. and drove west into the most eastern part of Oregon, a place called Huntington. Along with Madras a couple of hundred miles to the west, Huntington has a weather history that places it in the most reliably sunny places in the country for this time of year. 

We pulled off the freeway at a marvelous place called Farewell Bend State Park, a beautiful, grassy, place on the Snake River, which flows all the way from Jackson, Wyoming to the Columbia River. Farewell Bend has a deep history involving all of the settlers traveling the Oregon Trail beginning back in 1843. Some paused in Eastern Oregon and decided to make a new life farming the dry rolling hills. Other said their goodbyes to fellow settlers and headed on down the Snake River on their way to the West Coast.

We waited, along with hundreds of other eclipse watchers, as the moon slowly ate into the sun. It was cool to see, but it was nothing that any of us but the children in the crowd hadn't already seen before.

As the moon covered most of the sun, we began to notice that the landscape was less bright. The light was whiter and harsher as if the sun were a very bright parking lot light. As the moon covered more and more of the sun, the speed of change seemed to increase. The temperature dropped from quite warm to cool. I pulled on my sweatshirt. Birds started taking to the air as if suddenly realizing that their evening ritual had fallen behind. The total time it took for the moon to reach totality from after it first began nibbling on the sun was a little over an hour. Totality where we were was 2 minutes and 9 seconds.

As totality approached, it seemed that the moon's movement sped up further. In a moment, the coverage was nearly complete. The tiny bit of direct sun that still appeared was brilliant, far too bright to look at without the special glasses. Then, the culmination of the long wait came, and the magic moment happened, sooner than maybe anyone expected.

It was almost a shock. The last bit of direct sunlight shut off as if someone had flipped a switch. In a moment we went from a very small bit of very bright sun to a not very dark night. 

We saw a bright glow at the point where the last bit of sun had been. This is the effect that many describe as looking like a diamond ring. In a moment, that glow also disappeared. Then the dominant feature in the sky was the corona of the sun, larger for us than in the picture below. It stretched out twice the diameter of the sun. It was one of the more amazing things I'd ever seen. Everyone gasped. Some made awe-struck whoops. Then there was a hush.

Think of the corona as the undulating atmosphere of the sun. It extends millions of miles above the sun's surface. And, in one of the great mysteries of the sun, the corona, at a million degrees or more, is much, much hotter than the sun's surface, which is relatively cool at less than ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit. 

The entire crowd was transfixed at this sight.

After our first astonishment, we took a moment to look around. Venus and another planet were visible in the dark sky. A few stars shown. At the horizon in all directions was a sunset-like glow coming from the surrounding land - 35 miles away - that was outside of the band of totality and still in sunlight.

Totality is beyond description. The entire crowd gasped in unison.
How would I rate this experience? I've never formulated a bucket list of things to do and experience before I die. But if I did, this would be near the top. How would I characterize a two-minute event that I spent four days driving to see? Absolutely worth it. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Pic Shows How Living In Tahoe Is Different

This was August 22nd on Luther Pass. Although this is fun, you should probably be glad you are someplace else.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Throckmorton, The African Grey Parrot

Here is one more great story from Ackerman's The Genius Of Birds.

https://www.amazon.com/Genius-Birds-Jennifer-Ackerman/dp/0399563121/ref=sr_1_1_twi_pap_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501449324&sr=1-1&keywords=the+genius+of+birds

If you get the paperpack version, turn to page 146 and prepare to laugh and be amazed. Ackerman recounts the story of Throckmorton, an African Grey Parrot whose verbal ability is astonishing.



Throckmorton belongs to a couple, Karen and Bob, and his housemate is a miniature schnauzer. 

Throckmorton perfectly mimics the ring tone of Bob's cell phone. Then he mimics Bob answering it, "Hello? Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh." Then Throckmorton mimics the sound of Bob hanging up. From the other room, Karen thinks (knows) that Bob is in the next room and has been talking on the phone. 

Throckmorton's cell phone fluency is a great way to entertain himself, getting Bob and Karen both running, looking for their phones.

When Throckmorton wants some action, he mimics the schnauzer barking as if someone has knocked on the door. The schnauzer then joins, wondering, no doubt, how he missed the door knocker. No one, including Bob and Karen, can tell the difference between the parrot barking and the dog barking. Karen says that Throckmorton makes their house sound like a kennel.

When Bob has a cold, Throckmorton does his nose-blowing, coughing, and sneezing routine, exactly like Bob. Throckmorton mimics the sound of Bob slurping his coffee. He can do a perfect rendition of Karen gulping water.

And of course, Throckmorton has a comprehensive command of English, including those colorful words that can make certain dinner guests uncomfortable.

Further, he perfectly mimics both Karen's and Bob's voices. So if he wants someone to come, he calls out, "Bob" in Karen's voice, or "Karen" in Bob's voice. 

Never a dull moment in Throckmorton's house!

I highly recommend Ackerman's book.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Is GPS Making Us Dumber?

Last week, I wrote about Jennifer Ackerman's "The Genius Of Birds," an amazing collection of the latest science on bird intelligence. One of the studies was looking into similarities between the way birds learn to navigate and the way humans learn to navigate.

Birds learn how to navigate by watching their parents and communicating with other birds and flying around learning where places are and by figuring out through experience how to accurately go back to those places. It turns out that if you raise a bird without this experience, the bird, no matter how innately smart, does not learn navigation skills.

Humans are the same way.

The conclusion of the science was something that society has begun to witness anecdotally. When people spend time studying maps and putting the information in them to use (such as driving cross country, or engaging in the sport of orienteering, or finding one's way in the canoe wilderness of Northern Minnesota and Ontario using nothing but a topographical map and a compass) people get very good at navigation skills. Drop a person with such experience into the wilderness at night with nothing but the sun and the stars for information, and they will have a good chance of finding their way out.



By contrast, if a person goes everywhere by listening to the synthetic voice in the car give directions, saying "Turn right in one mile, then turn left at the next intersection," the person never really gets a sense of where anything is in relation to other places. The person never learns geography. Drop that person into the wilderness, they are helpless.

The two people may have equal intelligence, but the one who figures out where they're going is dramatically smarter than the one who just follows directions.




Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Genius Of Birds

We all love birds. Of all the non-human animals on the planet, they are the only ones who are everywhere, all the time, tropics or arctic, and they flaunt their brain power as well as their beauty. Other animals, from meek mice to roaring lions, tend lie low or even hide, whether to avoid being eaten or to avoid scaring off their lunch.

Not birds. They are loud and in your face. They are bold. And they are amazing problem solvers, displaying a brilliance and a group of skills that no other animals possess.

I just finished reading a great book titled The Genius Of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. I always knew birds were special. Ms. Ackerman explained why and how.



We often notice the smarts of our dogs. We notice the smarts of dolphins and elephants and apes. These animals can all do amazing things with memory (finding buried toys or food), searching (dogs and dolphins using scent to find and track explosives), communication (dolphins give each other names), making tools to get food (chimps make hunting spears), complex social interactions (elephants mourn their dead with specific rituals).

But birds are the only animals who do all of the above plus can learn to mimic other animal communication with astonishing fidelity, use tools to make other tools, build impressive homes using many kinds of materials, make dramatic, colorful art installations that have no functional purpose and are only designed to attract mates, and keep track of the calendar to the day. For example, Hummingbirds can memorize the location of thousands of flower/nectar food sources and the dates those flowers typically bloom. Then they show up each year on the same day after migrating hundreds or even thousands of miles.

One of their most amazing abilities is their navigation ability. Birds create a mental, geographic map of their world that includes vision, hearing, smell, and even magnetic field information. They are of course born with the right wiring. But it is their learning through observation of their parents and trial and error that gives them these skills.

In a notable experiment, scientists in Seattle trapped birds that have lived their entire lives on the West Coast. They attached tiny transmitters to the birds, then put those birds into a closed metal container (comfortable inside for the birds). The container allowed no information, light or sound or magnetism, from the outer world to seep in. Then, using a circuitous route, the scientists took the birds to the East Coast, 3000 miles from anyplace they'd ever been, and released them. The birds flew around a bit as if to do a little reconnaissance about their new area. After a day or so, the birds headed west. In a few days, the birds all returned home.

While many birds are born with certain innate understanding. Scientists have learned, and demonstrated, that most critical bird navigation is learned. And if you take away that learning, birds cannot navigate well at all.

Next week, I'll discuss the question of what that means for people relying on GPS to give them directions to their destination. Hint: It ain't good!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Perfect Tahoe Summer Break

Let's say you want a little afternoon getaway and you're on the South Shore. 

It's hard to beat taking a drive, or a hike, up to Echo Lakes near the top of Echo Summit. Echo Lakes are at 7400 feet. They are just down from the high country of Desolation Wilderness, which, at the end of July, is still buried in snow above 8500 feet. The snow-cooled breeze and the wind off the very cold water drove us to put on sweatshirts even as Tahoe, 1200 feet below, was quite toasty.

When you get up to Echo Lakes, you can hike along the shore and look at the cute little cabins, or you can hike up to the nearby saddle and look down at Tahoe and see a spectacular view that will stay with you forever. Or hike to the summit of Echo Peak or on to Desolation and enjoy an amazing wilderness experience. Echo Lakes is a great place that we go to every year.

Oh, one more thing. Stop in the general store and get an ice cream cone. You'll feel like a little kid again.

That's snow on the mountains in the distance. Up there is Desolation Wilderness and Lake Aloha at 8100 feet. The entire surrounding area is still buried in snow.