Sunday, March 1, 2015

What Happens If You Lie To Your Dog?

She won't believe you the next time you tell her something.

Yeah, it's true. Yet another study demonstrates the amazing abilities of dogs to understand human behavior. 

This study used a simple yet clever approach, and they tested it on 34 dogs. The results were clear. If you show a dog where to find a hidden treat, the dog will appreciate it and check out the next hiding place you point to. But if you "lie" and show them the wrong place, they will realize that you can't be trusted, and they will ignore your subsequent advice.

Lesson to learn? Play fair with your dogs. They're as smart as young kids, and, like kids, they will respond to you in accordance with how reliable and trustworthy you are.

Read about it at Huffington Post

Sunday, February 22, 2015

How Smart Is Your Dog?

I've written before about how, when it comes to understanding what humans want, dogs likely have the greatest emotional intelligence of all animals.

Here: The Emotional Intelligence Of Dogs

And here: Animal Intelligence Is Always Underestimated

Now comes yet another study that shows that the scientists are catching up with the rest of us. Basically, they've now demonstrated that dogs can look at your face and tell whether you're happy or angry.

Once again, this is something that most dog owners have always known. And, once again, this is something that dog owners have always been reluctant to tell their friends who don't know dogs for fear that their friends will think them ignorant, anthropomorphizing dullards.

Read and Smile: 

Dogs Can Tell Happy Or Angry Faces

Dogs Know When We're Angry Or Happy

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Most Important Invention For Readers And Writers Has Lasted 2000 Years

The next time you're at a gathering of literary types and you'd like some bit of information with which to amaze them, I have the answer.

Book lovers are utterly dependent on an invention that has lasted for 2000 years, an invention that transformed the world starting around the 1st century AD with the Romans. 

The invention is the codex.

'What is a codex?' I wondered when my wife and I went to our first Codex Book Fair last week at the beautiful Craneway Pavilion in Richmond (just north of Berkeley).

Turns out the codex is simply our "modern" concept of a book, a device that consists of a pile of bound pages that one can flip back and forth. Prior to the codex, most writing was done on scrolls, and before that, on tablets, whether made of wood or stone or clay.

A 13th century codex from Bohemia, courtesy of Wikipedia

The problem with tablets was that they were bulky and heavy. Scrolls solved that problem, but they created a new problem. Scrolls were sequential. You couldn't get to the middle or end of a piece of writing without starting from the beginning and working your way through. 

The codex changed all that making it so that one could have easy access to any part of a work of writing. You can open a book - I mean, codex - to the middle or end without going through the whole work from the beginning. So simple, yet world changing and very cool.

As you can imagine, that revolutionized our information systems. Within a few hundred years, the codex totally blew scrolls out of the water. In the mid-15th century, Gutenberg came along with his handy printing press, and that was obviously a big deal, too. But what if he'd had to print on scrolls? 

Incidentally, smart as the Romans were, the Maya civilization in Central America also invented the codex, probably around the 5th century. And the Maya invented a much better kind of paper than the papyrus the Romans used. The Maya used their books to carefully record the history of their civilization for most of their thousand-year existence. 

From the Dresden Maya Codex, courtesy of Wikipedia

Unfortunately, when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived and kicked those poor Mayan butts, the Spanish priests saw that the Mayans had hundreds of books filled with writing and beautiful illustrations. They decided that because the Maya hadn't yet been exposed to Christianity, those books probably represented the devil, so they burned them all.

A few Spaniards made notes about the number of books and the nature of their content. They even noted that the Mayans flipped out to see the history of their civilization burned. Yeah, no kidding. 

So apparently, codex/book burning has a long and proud history going all the way back.

There are only three authenticated Maya codices that survived.

Here's the Wikipedia article on Maya Codices. Check out the amazing illustrations!

Fortunately, people today recognize the value of the codex, something that many of us take for granted. And there is a biennial Codex Book Fair that celebrates the original concept of the handmade book. 

At the Codex Book Fair, there were probably 100 exhibitors with gorgeous handmade books filled with poetry and photographs. I highly recommend it. Here's the link to the fair. Put it on your calendar for early 2017.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mark Bacon's Death In Nostalgia City Is A Real Treat

From the beginning of this assured debut mystery, it was obvious that Reno author Mark Bacon is a pro writer, and I settled in for what I knew would be a good ride. By the end, the book had surpassed my high expectations.

Lyle Deming, a retired cop from Phoenix, is a middle-aged cab driver at a late ’60s / early ’70s theme park in northern Arizona. He enjoys his job chatting up his Baby Boomer customers and telling jokes about the old days. But when the theme park suffers a series of accidents and people are injured, the theme park’s owner becomes very worried. He wants Lyle to investigate.

Lyle is an intriguing character. We gradually learn that his exit from his police career was messy. There are hints of mental health issues. Lyle also has a stepdaughter with medical problems, and Lyle’s recalcitrant dad has moved in with him. These revelations make Lyle a fully-formed person, struggling with a range of difficulties, and we care about him much more than we would a “regular” guy.

Lyle has a colleague in Kate, a woman with relationship issues of her own. She’s been hired by the theme park’s owner to produce good publicity to counter the bad press generated by the park’s accidents.

The action ranges from the theme park in Arizona to the Boston area. There is some fun subterfuge involving illegal phone tapping and other corporate intrigue, sneaking through corporate offices, searching computer files, and evading suspicious executives at the big Boston insurance company that invested in the theme park. Lyle suspects the company of sabotaging the theme park by arranging accidents to crash its reputation so that the insurance company can take over ownership of the park.

Just as we start to think that the story is mostly an intriguing puzzle about shady business dealings, the body count starts to ratchet up and the action gets intense. Lyle and Kate are being hunted. They are on the run across the country, and they don’t know who to trust. The story builds to a dramatic climax set in a striking place unlike that in any book I have read. I was turning pages fast to find out how Lyle and Kate would survive.

Bacon handles a complicated story well, giving us realistic characters in bad trouble. By the end of the book, Bacon ties it all up in a satisfying conclusion. Death In Nostalgia City has good characters, a fast-moving story, complicated twists, and a great climax. I hope Bacon is planning to expand this into a series.

Death In Nostalgia City is available in both hard copy and Kindle formats.

Here's the link to the book: Death In Nostalgia City

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Perfect Place To Write...

Most writers I know have fantasized about the perfect place to write. Sometimes it comes from a misguided notion that if we had a dream writing place, we would produce great writing. Other times, the fantasy is generated by learning about some other writer’s amazing workplace, whether it be a high-rise writing loft with a view of the Empire State Building, or a sunroom overlooking the ocean. Recently, I heard about George Bernard Shaw’s writing shed, which rotated on a turntable so that he could change his view whenever he wanted!

I’m very lucky because, while my home is just a humble cabin in the Tahoe forest, what I see out the window directly in front of my desk is a king’s view of trees and sky and mountains. And directly above my desk are skylights letting in the sun, the moon, and the stars. The other day, a Red Tailed Hawk landed on a branch outside my window. He groomed himself for an hour while the Stellers Jays screamed and dive-bombed him. A wonderful dose of nature is invigorating. But is it also a distraction?

Stephen King says that writers shouldn’t have a grand desk and beautiful view because they just distract from the job. A small desk under a stairwell is more suited to staying focused. Last week, I had an opportunity to test his concept.
I needed some auto work done, and there was no shop in the Tahoe Basin that could do the job. It would take two days in another city. I figured I could drive down out of the mountains, check into a hotel the night before, and drop off the vehicle in the morning. I would bring my bike with me so I could ride back to the hotel. At the end of the following day, I could ride back to pick up the vehicle. I would come back up the mountain the following morning. Three nights, two full days in between (minus the bike rides), and partial days on either end.

What would I do with my time? My options were to go for walks or explore the city’s parks or channel surf at the hotel, always an unusual experience for a guy who hasn’t had a TV for 35 years. (Don’t worry, I do watch movies from Netflix and the occasional Youtube video, so I’m not completely disconnected from reality. Just mostly.)

After considering my options to spend three days away, I decided it was the perfect time to get some writing done while waiting for the shop to do their thing.

So I went to Priceline and found one of those cheap extended stay places.

Why was it cheap? Because it had no restaurant, nor was there one close across the street. The hotel had no swimming pool, no view, no exercise room, no business center where you could print documents, no in-room coffee maker, no daily maid service. In short, this place had nothing to recommend it except that it was clean, quiet, had a microwave and fridge, a work table, a nice shower, and a firm bed. For a writer in sequester finishing up my next book, it was perfect.

I brought my laptop and a cooler with food. I ignored the hotel Wi-Fi, planning to do nothing but write. My bike rides from and to the auto shop would be enough exercise (9 miles each way), so I needed no walks.

So I sat at the little hotel table and wrote. Periodically, I stood up to stretch and pace the floor while working out a plot point. I ate my breakfast, lunch, and dinner while I worked on my laptop. Except for the bike rides, I worked from when I woke up until I went to bed. In the middle of the first two nights, I couldn’t sleep, too many thoughts of my novel circling in my head. So I got up and wrote from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., then went back to bed.

Other than phone calls and emails to my wife, I communicated with no one.

My room was on the first floor, with a sidewalk out my window. I didn’t want the passersby to watch me (and distract me) as I typed at my little table. That would feel a bit like one of those performance art pieces with a writer typing away in a department store display window. So I kept the drapes shut. I had no daylight except when I was on my bike.

Would this suit other writers? Maybe not. Working in a darkish hotel room for two full days and part of two more with no light other than the spiral tube fluorescent bulbs and the laptop screen might seem like being sent to a prison that was built inside a cave.

But that’s not the way it seemed to me. In fact, it was perfect. I wasn’t in a hotel cave at all. I was up on Tahoe’s mountains navigating a snowstorm, then I was in a boat out on the lake, then I was chasing a psychopath through the night, then I was having a gourmet dinner with witty repartee out on a deck above the lake. I got to travel, send Spot on a body search, drink wine with Street, solve a philosophical conundrum with Sergeant Diamond Martinez.

During my hotel confinement, I wrote maybe 30 pages and spent the entire time imagining and experiencing the fictional life of Detective Owen McKenna, which, frankly, is a hundred times more exciting than my real life.

Lots of people think writing is hard.

I - and many writers like me - know the truth. Writing can transport you out of any circumstances into the time and place and company of your choice.

Stephen King was right. You don’t need a great writing place. A dark hotel room will do the job. Writers are fortunate that, unlike nearly any other job, they can write even when they’re stuck in another city waiting for vehicle work. The perfect writing space in is your head, wherever you may be.

In fact, writing is such a sweet job, it shouldn’t even be called a job. I’m a lucky guy, and I know it.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Note To Writers - Beware Of Plot Phobia

In previous posts, I've mentioned how literary writing has as its focus writing as art. Whether or not it entertains or sells is a lower priority.
The pursuit of literary writing in the last half century or so has de-emphasized plot to the extent that some literary writers disparage plot and treat it like unwanted frivolity.
Common mainstream literary novels often seem to have realistic, sometimes bleak scenarios, i.e., similar to real life, and little in the way of story. Such novels are often categorized as character-based fiction.
Nothing wrong with that. And if you want to write those, great.
Beware, though, that novels with weak plots don’t generally sell well, regardless of how strong the characters are. The bestseller lists don’t feature many literary novels.
But there are some literary novels that do make it onto the lists. They generally have strong plots.
Turns out you can have it both ways.
Many, if not most, of the novels that are considered the greatest novels of all time are literary novels, and it's true that a fair number of them don’t have much in the way of a plot. And to this day, most of them still don't sell well in spite of their greatness.
But some of those great books have huge plots. In fact, many of the stories - books and plays - considered to be the greatest literary achievements ever have over-the-top, killer plots.
From Sophocles and Euripides, to Marlowe and Shakespeare (any one of Shakespeare’s tragedies has more plot than any six modern novels), to countless modern novelists, a big story is the central feature of their work. 
I Googled “Greatest novels of all time,” and “100 greatest novels,” and other similar search terms. There were tons of lists, but the same books appeared over and over. Of the lists proclaiming the greatest novels, I certainly did find some great character studies that are real yawners when it comes to plot. (Novels where one is tempted to ask, “Did anything happen in that book? Maybe, but I can’t remember.”) But there were others with serious plots.
Here’s a few that jump out:

Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
Huxley’s Brave New World
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind
Golding’s Lord of the Flies
Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice
Melville’s Moby Dick
Atwood's The Blind Assassin
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five
Dickey’s Deliverance
Hammett's The Maltese Falcon
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange
Fowles’s The Magus
McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
London’s The Call of the Wild
Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
Orwell’s 1984
Chandler’s The Big Sleep
le CarrĂ©’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Amis’s Lucky Jim
Dumas’s The Three Musketeers
Eco’s Name of the Rose
Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles
Morrison's Beloved

You get the idea. Don’t have plot phobia. And don’t let writers who look down on plot get to you. You can have great characters and a great plot.

Go for it.

P.S. Why aren't there more female authors on these lists? I don't know, but the usual suspects probably apply. For decades, even centuries, women weren't encouraged to write or rewarded for doing so the way men were. And perhaps there is some unconscious bias on the part of the people making the lists. But I'm confident that these perceptions are changing. Also, there are some female writers - Virginia Woolf, A. S. Byatt, Zora Neale Hurston, Willa Cather, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Zadie Smith - that are on the "greatest novels" lists but not on my sample above because their books aren't noted for their racing plots, and of course you may disagree with me on that!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Book Publisher In Tahoe? Yeah, A Great One

In the community of Meyers on Tahoe's South Shore is Bona Fide Books, a fast-growing publisher of fiction, poetry, essays, nature writing, and nonfiction on subjects like farming. They've even started a series of comic books on Tahoe's history called, simply, Tahoe History Comix. 

Bona Fide Books is run by a creative force of nature named Kim Wyatt, a writer herself, who has transformed Tahoe's writing scene with her support and enthusiasm. In addition to publishing several volumes a year, she hosts a wide range of writing-related events at her company's offices in Meyers as well as at other venues such as the South Lake Tahoe Library. 

Bona Fide Books also has another imprint called Cherry Bomb Books, the first publication of which is a collection of essays on women's rights and reproductive health.

Bona Fide Books has a national reach. Each year, Bona Fide hosts the annual Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize. The winner gets publication of a collection of his or her poetry, and Kim brings that writer to Tahoe for the book launch. 

Bona Fide Books reaches out and provides space to other community groups. For example, our local writer's group Tahoe Writers Works meets each month at Bona Fide's offices.
Tahoe Writers Works is a separate group that holds meetings at Bona Fide Books.
Unlike many publishers who operate in private behind locked doors, Bona Fide Books has an open-door policy. They're at 1069 Magua Street in Meyers, just four miles south of the "Y" intersection in South Lake Tahoe. Feel free to stop by and check them out. Their number is 530-573-1513 if you want to check their hours.

My wife and I have several of Bona Fide's titles. We've enjoyed them a lot. They also make great gifts. You can order Bona Fide Books titles here. And of course you can also get them at Amazon.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wow, The Power Of Molly Greene's Blog!

Last November, a writer named Molly Greene wrote me. In addition to having written several novels, she said she wrote a blog about writing and, sometimes, about other working writers who are earning a living from their work. She wondered if she could do a blog about me.

Okay, let’s parse my feelings about people focusing on my work. I’m a writer. Anyone willing to engage in the questionable activity of spending ten or twenty years learning a strange craft like novel writing and who then spends another year per book to produce some titles either wants an audience for those books or is a candidate for serious medicinal intervention.

I’ve tried medicinal intervention - Sierra Nevada Pale Ale - which works great for a wide range of maladies. But it doesn’t mitigate a writer’s DNA-driven desire to find readers who enjoy what comes out of the writer’s twisted imagination.

So when Molly contacted me, I looked her up, read a range of her work, and was impressed. I could tell that she was a pro. Naturally, I was happy to have her feature me.

What I didn’t know about Molly was that she was a big deal.

Molly gave me some smart questions and some thoughts about what she was after. I wrote some stuff about my writing experience and she edited it to fit her concept.

Her blog came out last Monday. That morning, I got up, poured my first cup of coffee, and looked at the computer to see how her blog turned out.

I was amazed. Not just because she did a great job but also because people from across the country - and from other countries as well! - were posting comments, asking questions, wanting to know more about my books and how I produce them and promote them. A day later, another big blog, The Passive Voice, re-posted it, and then a couple of smaller blogs re-posted it.

Molly’s blog about my books has now had thousands of page views.

The power of a blog and how its reach spreads through cyberspace is impressive.

So thanks, Molly! My hat’s off to you!

If you’d like to read it, here’s the link:

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Why Is The Full Moon Higher In Winter Than In Summer?

Tonight, January 4th, the moon is full. Yea! 

At 8:53 p.m. on the West Coast, to be exact. (On calendars, it says the full moon is January 5th, but that's because the official date of the full moon is based on the time in Greenwich Mean Time, otherwise known as UTC - Coordinated Universal Time.) And when it is 8:53 p.m. on the West Coast, it is 4:53 a.m. the next day in London. Which explains why we often look up at the moon on the "calendar date" of the full moon and think, "I think it was fuller last night." Because, for us, the full moon was the night before.

In Tahoe, we often notice the full moon because:
1) Our nights have less light pollution, so the moon is brighter
2) We're at high altitude, so there is less atmosphere above us to dim the moon
3) The snow on the mountains is spectacular in the moonlight, begging us to notice

This is from a cool website called

If you notice full moons, you can't help wondering why the full moons of winter are way, way up high in the sky, making it so bright on the snow that you can easily read by moonlight. By comparison, summer full moons are low in the sky.

Ever notice how the full moon track is just like the sun's track, only the summer and winter tracks are reversed?

I wondered why that is, so I looked it up.

It turns out that it has to do with the fact that the Earth is tilted on its axis (which is what gives us our seasons among other cool stuff). And when the moon revolves around the Earth, it doesn't stay over the Earth's equator, it stays on the same plane as the Earth's orbit and the sun and most of the planets. 

That plane is called the ecliptic, and all the stuff that stays on the ecliptic plane got that way because when the solar system first began to coalesce, the material that eventually became the planets contracted into a spinning disc. The spin and plane of that disc has stayed the same ever since.

Here's an easy way to visualize why the full moons are higher in winter than summer. 

First, remember that when the Moon is full, it is on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun, so its entire surface that we see is illuminated.

Now think of a globe sitting on a really large table. The table represents the ecliptic, and most of the stuff in the solar system stays on that table. As you know, a globe accurately depicts the Earth at a tilt. The Earth, like the most of the solar system's inhabitants, also stays on the ecliptic plane as it orbits the sun. It just stays tilted as it moves around. 

When the Earth's North Pole is pointing toward the sun, it makes for the long days of summer for those of us in the northern hemisphere. But when the Earth rotates so that we are in the dark of night and we look up to see the full moon, it is on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun. So when the sun is high in the summer, that means that the moon is low.

In winter, the opposite is true. The Earth's North Pole points away from the sun, so the sun is low in the sky. The full moon, on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun, is now high in the sky.

So enjoy the glorious full moon tonight. Along with the full moon we had in December, tonight's full moon will be higher in the sky than any other until next December. And with the snow on the mountains, Tahoe's full moon is a real treat!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

How Much Longer Does Each Day Get Over The Course Of Winter?

Tahoe is at 39 degrees of latitude, so our winter days aren’t nearly as short as in places farther north like Seattle or Minneapolis or “the Portlands,” either Oregon or Maine. Even so, I love longer daylight, and I wait for the days to start stretching out again after the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. But how much is the increase in daylight every day?

The answer would seem to be easy to calculate. One could take the difference in day length between the Winter Solstice (Dec 21st) and the Summer Solstice (June 21st) and divide by the number of days in that period (about 182).

In Tahoe, our shortest day is about 9 hours and 28 minutes. Come the Summer Solstice, our longest day is about 14 hours and 52 minutes. If you divide the difference (5 hours and 24 minutes) by 182 days, you’d think that our day length increases by about 1 minute and 46 seconds each day.

But that isn’t the case! In fact, the amount of the day length increase changes dramatically depending on the time of the year. For example, in the days right after the Winter Solstice, the day length increases by only a few seconds with each passing day. But come the Vernal Equinox (Mar 21st), the day length increases by 2 minutes and 31 seconds with each passing day. Why the disparity?

I did a little research, and here’s what I learned.

To help illustrate why, visualize a clockface.

Pardon my scratchy, hard-to-read printing!
(You can see why my wife is the artist in the family!)

The Earth is tilted about 23 degrees. In December, when the Northern Hemisphere tilts away from the sun, we get a shorter day. In June, the opposite is true. The Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun, and we get a longer day.

As the Earth moves, it travels counter-clockwise when viewed from above. The closer the Earth is to the bottom of this sketch, the shorter the day in the Northern Hemisphere. In contrast, the closer the Earth is to the top of the sketch, the longer day.

But consider this. As the Earth moves from December 21st to January 21st, it's mostly just moved to the right on the sketch. It's gone very little toward the top. So the day length has increased just a smidgen in an entire month. 

But when the Earth gets to the part of its orbit from mid-February to mid-April, a month's worth of movement takes it much farther toward the top of its orbit, thus increasing the day length a lot!

Here's an example of what a difference that makes. In the ten days after the Winter Solstice, the total day length increase is only 2.5 minutes. But in the ten days after the Equinox, the day length increases about 25 minutes. Ten times as much! As represented on the sketch, that's because the Earth has moved ten times as much toward the place where we have the Summer Solstice.

So the next time you wonder how much day length increases or decreases, remember that it's completely dependent on the time of the year. At the Equinoxes, day length changes a lot every day. At the Solstices, day length barely budges.

Whew! Glad we figured that out, huh?!

P.S. I always wait for Owen McKenna's Ten/Ten Rule Of Sunlight to kick in on January 21st. Here's a blog about that.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tahoe Ghost Boat Kindle Will Be Free On Christmas

Hi Everybody,

Beginning Christmas Day, Tahoe Ghost Boat will be free on Kindle, and it will remain free for 5 days.

As of this writing, Tahoe Ghost Boat has 175 reviews, 155 of which are 5 stars, which gives an overall average of 4.8 stars. Thanks to all of you who have posted reviews!

For those of you who are wondering why anyone gives a book away for free, the answer is that it means that many people who don't know my books will try this one. Last year, my free book at Christmas was downloaded 95,659 times. A bunch of those downloads probably got lost in people's large Kindle libraries never to be seen again. But a lot of people read my book and loved it. And, yes, you guessed it, they bought my other titles.

The other reason a book giveaway is good for me is that last year my book went to #1 in the Kindle Free store across all categories and stayed there for 36 hours. That gave me a lot of exposure and made people curious. If they had never heard of me, they probably thought, who the heck is this guy at number one when I haven't even heard of him?!

So if you or someone you know is interested in a good, free Kindle book, please go to the Amazon page on Christmas. Here's the link: Tahoe Ghost Boat Free On Amazon 

Thanks very much for your interest and support!


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Surfing Lake Tahoe!

I was at a book club a few months ago when someone asked me if it is really true that we can get five-foot swell on Lake Tahoe as is depicted in the Prologue of Tahoe Ghost Boat. I explained that we can and that it isn't that rare.

Last week's storm brought big winds (147 mph on Mount Lincoln at Sugar Bowl) and waves that were even higher than five feet. Some were reported to be seven feet.

Which, of course, brought out surfers!

You think surfing the Pacific is cold, wait until you surf Tahoe in the winter!

Here are photos from the Sacramento Bee.

Looks like waves on the North Shore of Kauai

This is a baby wave

The next wave coming looks perfect

Real wind

Waves like the ones depicted on the cover of Tahoe Ghost Boat