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.