Sunday, October 30, 2016

Our Primate Cousins Are Smarter Than We Thought

Here is some more cool information that shows just how smart non-human animals are.

In the October 7th issue of the journal Science, there is an amazing new study about the intelligence of chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. But it's not amazing for the reason you might think... (see the last paragraph).

The study from Duke and Kyoto Universities and the Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology used some simple experiments (with a guy in a King Kong costume!) to show that apes can anticipate what someone is thinking.

This, of course, is just like us. But some people (including scientists) are slow to realize this because we think we're special.

The basics involved the King Kong look alike (presumably just to get the apes' attention) hiding a stone in a box. However, the apes can see that there is a person watching where the stone is hidden. So of course, the apes know that the person knows where the stone is. But to add a worthy plot twist, when the watching person goes away for a bit, King Kong switches the stone to a different box. The apes also witness this.

So the question is whether the apes are tracking all this tricky business. We expect them to keep track of where the stone really is. But will they also keep track of where the person thinks the stone is?

The researchers used cameras and software to watch and record where the apes' eyes focus. And they can use these cameras to easily demonstrate that the apes always know where the stone is. They also used the cameras to track what happens as the person comes back into the room to look for the stone. What happened was that the apes always look toward the box where the person will go to find the stone, even though the apes know that the stone isn't really there. In other words, the apes can anticipate what the person is thinking even when the person is wrong. The apes totally get when the person is operating on incorrect information.

So what is amazing about all of this? Any animal lover will know that it isn't that apes are really smart. That's very much in the "duh" category. What is amazing is that it has taken so long for people to realize that we're just not that special. Sure, we're clever, and we can count the ways. But apes are probably talking about us behind our backs.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Best Hikes - South Shore - Van Sickle Park

Category - Easy
View Rating - 3 out of 10
Distance - Any distance you want, as this is an out-and-back round trip. Turn around when you desire. One of the easiest vista points is one half mile from the main parking area. If you're walking from a Stateline hotel, add another half mile each way. If you go to the Tahoe Rim Trail, it is about 5 miles round trip from the main parking lot.
Elevation gain - 200 - 1500 feet for the basic trail.

Let's say you're staying on Tahoe's South Shore near the state line, which features the city of Stateline, NV to the northeast of the line and Heavenly Village to the southeast of the line. This is where Tahoe's greatest concentration of hotels and motels are.

Now let's say you'd like to go on a nice hike but don't want to have to figure out transportation to a trailhead. No problem. There's a great hike within easy walking distance from your hotel. In less than 1 mile from your hotel, you can walk through the nearby forest to wonderful views. In less than 2 miles, the views are more expansive.

Years ago, the Van Sickle family donated their 542 ranch to provide for a park. The result is a very nice facility within walking distance from the busy hotel corridor near the state line.

The forest trails are relatively easy, the views are nice if not spectacular, and best of all, you can skip the car and walk from any of the area hotels.

To get to Van Sickle park, look for where Park Avenue crosses Hwy 50 (Lake Tahoe Blvd.) On the east side, what used to be Park Avenue is now called Heavenly Village Way. Walk east on Heavenly Village Way a long block to a four-way stop sign. The entrance to Van Sickle Park is straight ahead. (It is not well marked!)

Follow the red car straight into Van Sickle Park
When you get to this old barn, take the turn to the left.

This is the road that leads to the main parking area.
There are restrooms and information signs near the parking.
Look for this single trailhead sign. The main trail heads up behind the sign.
The sign has a map of the trails, of which there are several.
The trail is a single-track, but it is easy to navigate.

Watch for this sign and a trail that leads to a great overlook up on the rocks.
(Be careful at the top and use your hands for support. If you are unsure, don't climb up on them.)

This is the view to the left. The mountain on the left is Mt. Tallac. Maggie's Peaks are in the center.
Jakes Peak is to the right. Emerald Bay is tucked in below Maggies and Jakes.

View to the center
View to the right, with the casino hotels visible

As you continue up the trail, you come to the burn path from the Gondola Fire from several years ago. Someone tossed a cigarette butt out of the gondola, which started a huge forest fire that threatened all of the homes on Kingsbury Grade.
Van Sickle Park has multiple trails worth exploring. You can walk all the way up to the Tahoe Rim Trail, which you will intersect near the ski lifts on Heavenly's Nevada side. From there, if you like, you can continue to Tahoe's grandest hikes and mountains. For example, it is possible to hike all the way to Freel Peak, a 30-mile round trip, which, at 10,880 feet, is Tahoe's highest mountain and would require a 4,500-foot elevation gain from Van Sickle Park. This is, of course, only for EXPERT hikers. But I point it out just to show that there is a vast territory available to anyone with a good pair of hiking boots and a pack full of clothes, food, and water. No car necessary.


As you leave the parking area and head back to your hotel, you get a nice view of Mt. Tallac!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

WordWave Festival of Story

Next weekend, October 21 - 23, 2016, the WordWave Festival of Story will be held at Valhalla out by Camp Richardson on Tahoe's South Shore.

If you love books and stories, and if you want to meet agents and writers, this is the place to be. There are multiple presentations and panels and fun events.

I'm also involved, and I'll be conducting the "Mysterious Morning" conversation on Sunday, Oct 23rd at 11 a.m. in the Valhalla Grand Hall. I'll be interviewing James Rollins and Galadrielle Allman about their writing. It should be a fun time, so come on down and join us!

Here's the main link:
WordWave Festival of Story

And here's  the complete WordWave schedule

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Best Kayaking In Tahoe - Fannette Island

Look carefully, there's an island hiding in front of that wall of rock! And if you look very close at the top of the island, you can see the square tea house that was built in 1929.

Fannette Island, the only island in Tahoe, is in Emerald Bay. It is where Captain Dick Barter, Tahoe's first year-round resident, spent time back in the 1860s. It is also where the heiress Lora Knight - after she built the Vikingsholm Castle on the shore of Emerald Bay - built a stone tea house back in 1929. She lived in the castle during the summers. During the day, she had her butler row her and her house guests out to the island to take tea. When you see the pictures below, you'll see why.

In the middle of September, while the weather was still glorious but the tourist rush was over, we kayaked out to Emerald Bay and visited Fannette Island. (See my previous blog post.)

While you can get to Fannette Island on most any boat, a kayak or canoe allows you to paddle right up to the rocky shore and step out onto dry land.

Here are the pics:

Like us, the paddlers in the red kayak are looking for a place on the island to make landfall.

There are lots of perfect coves in which to find shelter.

We found a perfect little Kayak Garage/Boathouse.

Once on the island, you can look out toward the mainland shore. Vikingsholm Castle is hidden in the trees.

A view of the mainland, framed by an ancient tree.

Zoom your camera in on the M.S. Dixie sternwheeler as it arrives at the Vikingsholm Castle. If you look close, you can see the castle in the trees just off the bow of the boat.

Fannette Island is about 150 feet tall. If you turn around to the east, you'll see the tea house at the top of the island.

Lora Knight's workers carved steps into the natural rock, making them look timeless and like something out of an epic ancient fantasy.

As you get close, the tea house dominates the island. Although it no longer has a roof, the stone walls are just as they were 90 years ago.

This view is looking down from just outside the tea house. The rock on the north side of the island is near-vertical, and you can see far down into the water.

Step inside the tea house and look out the picture windows. Have you ever seen a more perfect view with which to enjoy your tea?!

As we leave the island on our kayak, the Dixie cruises on past us.

Visiting Fannette Island by kayak or canoe is a singular experience you will never forget. I think it belongs near the top of the list of things to do in Tahoe.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Want Your Novel To Be A Bestseller?

Most writers would love to have a bestseller. And the few who aren't interested in selling big-time still would like to sell a decent number of books simply because that means that a lot of readers would connect to their work.

As I write this, I just finished exhibiting my books at the Candy Dance Festival in Genoa, Nevada. The crowd was, as always, huge. Among them were many authors - some I know and some I had never met - who came by to chat and trade war stories about the world of writing. A few writers alluded to their struggles to find an audience. Several of those writers asked questions, looking for input from a fellow writer. Some writers just wanted to say hi.

One writer who stopped by was James Rollins, the mega-selling writer of adventure thrillers. He and I are doing an event together at the upcoming WordWave Festival in South Lake Tahoe, the weekend of October 21st - 23rd. James and Galadrielle Allman and I will be having a "Mysterious Conversation" at the Valhalla Grand Hall on Sunday morning Oct 23rd at 11 a.m. I will be conducting a "Writer's Studio" - type interview with Rollins and Allman.

Anyway, back to the subject of this post. James Rollins is a classic example of a writer who has put together his career with great skill, writing a bunch of hugely entertaining novels that have spent a lot of time at the #1 position on the biggest bestseller lists.

As I thought about James' career and considered what other writers could learn from him, many things become clear, some obvious, some not so obvious. James Rollins is a perfect role model of how to create a successful writing career.

From my observations, I've put together a simple guideline to follow to give your books the best chance of finding an audience.

First, pick a half dozen bestselling novels in your genre and spread them out on your desk. Paper books are much better for this experience than ebooks. (And if you are writing a thriller or adventure thriller, make sure one of your examples is a book by James, because he is a master.) Your goal as you study these books is to make certain that your books could fit right in with them.

(If you are self-publishing, this is relatively easy because you have complete control. If you are published by another publishing company, you will have to work with them to make some of these things happen. But it can still be done. Be the polite-but-squeaky wheel with your editor and publicist and graphic designer, and they will see that you are simply focused and dedicated and - most important of all - determined to make your books a success.)

As you look at the six best-selling novels on your desk, imagine that your book is also in the group. Now imagine that a group of readers who didn't know the famous authors' names looked over the books, (the six famous ones and yours). Would those readers be able to pick yours out of the stack as the oddball? Would your book be the only one out of the seven with a photograph for your cover? Plain type fonts? Would yours be the only one with a cover designed by an amateur designer? Would it be the only one missing front pages with some quotes or blurbs, a title page, standard copyright page with standard copyright verbiage, a book title and author name at the top of every pair of pages? Would your book be half as long or twice as long as the others? Would it be the only one in the group with unusual length chapters, long passages of exposition, typos or, even worse, have more serious editing mistakes? In short, would your book look amateurish among the professional offerings?

Note, that some people think that it is good to be different in order to stand out. This is true in some fields and in some ways. But nearly always, if you are different in these things I'm mentioning, you will find it very difficult to find acceptance.

It's good to be different and surprising with the story you tell. But for most of us, most of the time, and in most markets, it's good to present your story package in a way that fits right in with the bestselling packages. Let your story stand out because of the story, not the other stuff.

Yet I keep seeing some writers who put out books that look like awkward, ungainly, unprofessional products. This is so avoidable. Yes, it takes planning and some money to get your book done professionally. But it isn't difficult. You put thousands and thousands of hours into writing your book. Why wouldn't you put at least a few dozen into making it look professional?

In short, when comparing any of your books to the six best-selling novels you've picked out, ask yourself these questions:

*Does your opening paragraph grab in a similar fashion?  Your first sentence?

*Does your novel use standard story-telling structure? (Standard POVs, linear or mostly-linear narrative, 1st person or 3rd person telling, and, usually, past tense narrative?)

*Is your novel so compelling that people (like the writers in your writer's critique group) tell you they had to stay up all night to finish it? If not, go back to the writer's group and get more input and rewrite appropriately until your book is that good. Does this seem like a tall order? Sure. But your competition is doing it. Why is anyone who reads James Rollins going to try your book unless the story is spectacular?

*Is your book printed in a similar trim size?

*Is your book formatted in a similar way, with similar page layout, front pages, title page, chapter headings, back pages?

*Please tell me that your novel doesn't have a Table Of Contents! (Some Kindle books, under misguided pressure from non-fiction editors at Amazon do - yikes!) Look at the six printed bestselling novels on your desk. I'll wager that none of them have a Table Of Contents.

*Is it printed in a similar font and in a similar size?

*Are your page gutters similarly generous?

*Is your back copy a similar length, and is it as "grabby?"

*Is your cover just as dramatic and compelling and professional?

*Do you avoid gimmicks such as front or back pages with contest entry forms and silly sales tricks?

*Is your book part of a series? Will that series be a trilogy at the minimum or open-ended? (While an ongoing series has always been valuable - just look at the number of authors who wrote dozens and dozens of novels featuring the same characters! - this is becoming more important. Readers are learning - being trained! - to look for series, and they judge books in a series as being likely to be better than standalone books, especially by authors who are new to them.)

*And do the books in your series, current books and future books, all have the same format? Same look? Same size? Same main characters?

These are some of the basic ways that authors can hugely increase their chances of discovery and acceptance in the market.

Study the most successful authors, writers like James Rollins. Learn from his example.

In sum, if you want your books to be accepted as professional, they must have the professional qualities of bestsellers in your genre. Only then will you sell enough books that anyone will notice that you have written a stellar story. And only after readers have been swayed by your professional presentation will your story take root in the marketplace and your career will begin to take off.