All posts by Edward McDermott

Edward McDermott, born in Toronto, has a professional day job but spends his spare time pursuing a writing career. Aside from taking writing courses and participating in writers' groups, Edward takes time for sailing, fencing, and working as a movie extra.

If you like Fantasy….

New Realm has published my short story ‘The Faerie Child’ in their February issue.  Sorry, I didn’t find out until recently. You see I don’t keep track of these things as well as I should. I spend my time on important things, like writing new stories and living.


It’s a kindle book which you can get from Amazon.

My story is about a wanderer, familiar with the world of the Faerie Folk who comes across a young girl.  A child raise by the Fair folk, still remains human, at least a bit.

Ouch. I’ve been distracted.

I haven’t written a blog for months, and frankly, I don’t miss writing them at all.  You see the problem is that a writer only has so many words in him every day. Some writers have more than others do.  (How does Stephen King do it?)

Anyway, I realized that as an author, I have to blow my own horn every so often, and frankly I haven’t been tooting enough. So I’m going to track down the recent sales and put pointers where you can find those stories.

I ran across this call for “Tales from the Construction Site” and this brought back a memory. I met a poet who wrote about his life. One of those poems described his father who worked construction in the 1950’s in Toronto. One image stayed with me.

Back then, the workers carried the bricks and mortar up the side of the building on their backs.  That inspired me to write ‘Nonno’s Gift’

Look for it and other stories from the construction site on Amazon

Tales from the construction site

Tales from the Construction Site



Easy as Cooking Stew


Writers create a host of rules to improve their writing, and often impose these same rules on other writers. This can lead to wars. Mention the topics of passive sentences, adverbs, word length, filter words or a host of other subjects and you’ll find passionate supporters and deniers. It’s very wearing, even when all you do is follow the conflict.

I believe the writing is often very much like cooking a stew. You begin with a meat, add some vegetables, and finish it off with spices. Properly done, the result satisfies the appetite. Make a mistake and it was a waste of time.

Stay with me for a moment longer. No matter what I tell you about making a stew, I’m certain that you could find an exception. Let me give you an example.

Start by cutting up some meat.

WAIT! What about a fish stew?


What about an egg stew?

Egg Stew? Is there one?


There are stews with and without cream. There are stews with and without vegetables. Some stews have almost no spices aside from a bit of salt. Curry has a multitude.

It’s the same with writing. Some stores start in the third person; others in the first person; still others in the second person, although they are rare.

Some stories have large gobs of description. Others have almost none. Some stories contain sentence fragments. Others are spiced up with adjectives and adverbs.

In the end, balance is the thing. The key factor to applying rules is the same one you use in cooking the stew. Try to put everything in balance, and season to taste. You can use pepper, but don’t drown the stew in it.

Try new recipes and discover what works for you. Try the writing rules and discover what works for you.

It’s as easy as pie. But that’s another story.

Watching Sports – Not


Currently, near me, the 2015 Pan Am games are into their final weekend. I haven’t gone to any of the events and I haven’t watched any of the coverage. This isn’t a reflection on the quality of the events or the athletes. I don’t watch sports on television with a few rare exceptions. I will watch a game or two of the World Cup of hockey, the occasional game of the World Cup of soccer and the America’s Cup if it is broadcast.

I realize this makes me very different from the average North American who will watch up to forty hours of sports each week. I can’t. I don’t have the time, and frankly watching sports bores me to tears, especially golf. I liked to play sports when younger, but today I tend to concentrate on working out, rather than winning.

Not that I haven’t played sports in the past. Soccer, tennis, fencing, karate. I tend towards the individual ones rather than the team ones. It’s amazing how team sport brings out the worst in some people. They have to be captain and leading scorer at the same time. I’m not talking about the professionals, but the ones in the amateur leagues. You know the type. He was a hotshot in high school, but never played in college. That’s the sort you get in industrial leagues.

Anyway, the Pan Am games are in their final weekend. Competitors from North and South America are competing for medals and bragging rights, and possibly a shot at the next Olympics. I wish them all luck. Personally, I’d rather be doing than watching and I have quite enough to keep me busy these days. Having said that I better get back to the stuff I have to do.

To see some of my short stories go to



The Tale of the Scale


Since January I’ve been dieting, trying to trim back to a more modest size. To date I’ve lost twenty pounds. No, I don’t want to know where they have gone. No, don’t try to send your extra pounds to me either.

When asked how I did it, I repeat Jack Lalane’s advice. “If you put something in your mouth and it tastes good, spit it out.” Actually, it’s not that bad.

Recently, I’ve plateaued and became a bit paranoid. I began to think that my scales were part of an industrial complex conspiracy, led by Weight Watchers. How could I be certain that I really knew my weight?

Simple solution. I belong to a gym. They had one of those old fashioned scales with the weights and the arm, where you zip the weight back and forth. You know the type I mean. Doctors’ offices have them. I decided to weigh myself at the gym and then at home with the same outfit to see how close they were.

At the gym I stepped on the scales and it told me I was ten pounds heavier that I weighed at home. Now I was dressed and it was afternoon, so I did expect a bit of a difference, about five pounds to be honest.

As I left the gym, I remarked to the person at the desk how much I hated the scale. She suggested I try the one in the intake room.

This scale was a miracle of modern technology. I had to tell it my height and my age. In return it told me my weight, my percent of body fat, my BMI, and some other things I am not prepared to share. Then I came home, and weighed myself once more, in the same clothes.

The difference in my weight between the two scales was half a pound. The scale at the gym determined that I was heavier than the scale at home.

Now I am sitting and wondering. Which scale is correct?


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A Viral Raccoon Memorial

dead racoon

Torontoians are many things, Canadian, polite, even patient, but they are not known for their love of raccoons. That’s because the pests live in all parts of the city, have adapted to city life, love the contents of recycle bins, defecate all over the place, and sometimes destroy property. One raccoon climbed 2013 meters to poop on top of a crane. Think of them as fury motorcycle gang members on crank.

How many raccoons does the city have? Nobody knows since there has never been a census but an estimate from the 1980’s put the number in the tens of thousands. Ask a home owner and he will tell you there are more raccoons in the city than people. I knew one resident who hoped the advent of coyotes within the city would curb the raccoon population.

However, this story is about one raccoon, which has been named Conrad for no apparent reason. At 9:05 AM, Conrad was reported dead at the corner of Yonge and Church, This is one traffic light north of Bloor and Yonge, and only minutes from the heart of the financial district. It’s right downtown.

Conrad’s body was reported to the City Services which responded that animal services had been contacted and the raccoon would be removed shortly.

At 3:15 PM, Conrad’s body was still on the sidewalk. However, some mourning member of the public had laid a flower on the poor raccoon’s body and left a condolence card. A framed picture of a raccoon stood at the body’s head.

About that time Councilor Norm Kelly became involved as he tweeted “Please have staff pick up this raccoon at 819 Yonge St.”

At 4:50 PM the body remained unclaimed and the memorial had grown.

At 8:37 PM the body remained and the memorial now contained several bunches of flowers as well as notes from people.

Getting into the spirit of the Dead Raccoon movement Norm Kelly tweeted “Residents are being asked to keep their green bins open tonight in honour of #DeadRaccoonTO,” at 9:12 PM.

At 10:23, after the sun had set on poor dead Conrad, his body remained on the sidewalk. Kind people had added several lit candles to his memorial. Perhaps they held a vigil for him. Someone added a donation box. The message on it read, “The proper authorities will only move the little fella when enough funds are raised. Please donate generously…”

Finally, after 11:00 PM, the city workers arrived to remove the dead raccoon body, but left the memorial on the sidewalk.

In Toronto, the city won’t help it citizens with live raccoon issues. The official position is that humans are the problem, not the raccoons. The new mayor, John Tory, thought the solution would be a new green bin that is raccoon proof. I’m certain I heard the same thing about the previous bin. If the new bins work raccoons will be forced to return to digging in compost bins.

Since raccoons carry diseases such as Raccoon Roundworm, Leptospirosis and Rabies, a dead raccoon on the city street isn’t just a laughing matter. It is a health hazard, especially when the cause of death isn’t apparent.

The impromptu memorial and tweets have traveled all over the place. You might have seen the story in the Belfast Telegraph, Minnesota Public Radio, or on Colorado’s 9News. This is the kind of media you can’t buy and certainly the City of Toronto never wanted.

Maybe the next time the public reports a dead animal carcass on the public sidewalk someone will respond in less than twelve hours, but don’t count on it.

To see some of my short stories go to



The Rise of the Machines


Scientists, working on AI, are trying to create a computer writer that will be indistinguishable from the human one. The story reminds me of a science fiction tale.

I first became involved with computers in the age of punch cards and large tapes. Big machines in dedicated rooms were served by acolytes in white coats. Today your smart phone has more processing power and more storage than those devices of a generation ago.

The computers have not just become smaller. They have become more human like. Remember the voice of the computer on any Star Trek episode? Strange how those episodes usually involved the destruction of the computer. Contrast that with your GPS or your Siri. In a movie a couple of years ago, a man falls in love with his electronic personal assistant.

Going the other way, voice recognition has gradually moved closer and closer to reality. I’m not using it personally. I go ‘um’ and ‘ah’ too often. However, I noticed that Windows 7 came with this tool and played around with it. Still doesn’t work for me, but for people with disabilities I can see how it would be a boon.

So the computer of today can listen and talk. In the words of the Shania Twain song, “That don’t impress me much.”

I recently discovered a grammar checking tool from, and I was impressed. To really edit a story, I run it through MS Word Grammar and spelling checker, then Grammatik and then I have the computer read it to me. Languagetool catches errors these three checks missed. I’m hoping I can use it to drop a couple of the other review techniques.

Still, grammar is just a set of rules isn’t it? Yes. Go to the library and pick up a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. You might want to work out at the gym for a bit before you try. Big book filled with rules.

Chess is a game of rules. A computer, Deep Blue, won a best of six games competition with the World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov almost twenty years ago.

Another computer, Watson, won on Jeopardy almost five years ago.

AP is already using robot writers to pen earnings reports pieces.

I don’t know if the programmers can create a story making machine. I wouldn’t bet against it. And just between us, I have a sneaking suspicion that James Patterson owns the prototype.


To see some of my short stories go to

Hail Pericles, Prince of Tyre


On Saturday, in Stratford Ontario, I saw ‘The Adventures of Pericles’ by William Shakespeare.

The play was staged at the Tom Patterson Theatre, which always makes me think of a converted hockey arena. However, I am unkind. The building started life as the winter home of the Stratford Badminton Club.

It’s a classic Shakespearean stage with an enormous tongue, so that most of the seats are on either side of the stage, instead of in front of it. Like all Shakespearean plays all the props must be carried on stage and off again by the actors. When staging a play that covers five different cities, a birth aboard a ship in a storm, and a shipwreck the director has some challenges. Pericles moves around a lot.

One particular effective staging was the birth scene aboard a boat in a storm. A hawser was used to outline the boat on the stage, where actors held onto it and pitched in the storm. White sheets from the top of the four poster bed became the sails, and within the bed, the babe is born and the mother dies.

The four-hundred and eighty patrons that make up the audience are close to the action. There is nothing to separate the audience from the actors, and, if you wanted to, you could run onto the stage during the production. I didn’t. I have a feeling that doing something like that would get me turfed from the theatre, and possible put in jail.

What this means for the patrons on the first row is that the fight scenes are not just in your face, they are almost in your lap. You can’t help ducking when they start swinging their swords.

You can gather that I enjoyed it more than I expected. Small wonder it was such a hit within Shakespeare’s life. The writing in the second act shows the bards touch with words. In one scene, Marina, who has been kidnapped and sold to a brothel in Mytilene, saves her virginity by convincing the men that they should seek virtue. As this unfolded before us, no one coughed or shuffled their feet or fiddle. The audience held their breath.

Then a little later, Pericles who has fallen into a deep depression discovers in the woman sent to care for him, his daughter. Remembering the scene today brings more tears to my eyes. His joy and happiness filled the place.

I’d like to see another staging of this play. I don’t know how much of my enjoyment rests with this particular performance rather than the work itself. Perhaps Scott Wentworth turned a weak play into an enjoyable one. If that’s the case imagine what he might do with better material.

If you live within driving distance of Ontario, consider coming to Stratford to see this play.

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Stratford in the Summer



This summer I plan to see a couple of plays in Stratford Ontario. Every summer this small sleepy town, also known as the home of Justin Bieber, has a Shakespeare festival that involves three different theatres and close to a dozen different productions. Shakespeare shares the spotlight with Broadway musicals and Restoration plays.

My first play is The Adventures of Pericles by William Shakespeare. Stratford decided to change the name of the play from the original Pericles, Prince of Tyre. As with almost every Shakespearian play, Bill stole the plot from somewhere else. In this case he took it from Confessio Amantis (1393) by John Gower, an English poet and contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer.

The play is set in Classical Greece. However, when staged in 1607, I doubt the company wore costumes from Ancient times. Stratford decided the perfect costumes for the play should set the story in Victorian England. I’ve seen stranger things done to the works of the bard.

That is not the only question about this play. How much did Shakespeare actually write? The play wasn’t included in the first Portfolio. Some scholars in the past have denied the Bard of Avon had any hand in it. Today, the general consensus is that he wrote about half.

The play’s likely co-author was George Wilkins. Who was he? Wilkins was an inn-keeper in Cow-Cross, London, an area that was “notorious as a haunt of whores and thieves”. Most biographical information about him derives from his regular appearance in criminal court records for thievery and acts of violence. Many of the charges against him involved violence against women.

Strangely enough, this work proved to be one of Shakespeare’s most popular during his lifetime.

The other play I plan to see is a comedy, ‘She stoops to Conquer’ by Oliver Goldsmith. As in most restoration comedies it involves love, marriage, and class. In this case the heroine pretends to be a servant when meeting the man her father wants to betroth her too.

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Exoplanets and the Rare Earth Theory


In 1961, Drake used his equation to estimate there could be twenty civilizations in our galaxy. Even today, the equation can produce a result from a low of 2 to a high of 280,000,000, depending what values you use for the variables.

One solution called the “Rare Earth Theory” takes the position that Earth is such a rare combination of conditions that it is unique. If you accept this theory there are no extraterrestrials.

The Rare Earth theory has its own equation. This has more variables than the Drake equation. These additional variables impose new requirements for a planet to develop a technological civilization. This theory argues that in addition to a rocky planet in a goldilocks orbit, the planet also needs the following:

  • It must have the right arrangement of planets with the gas giants on the outside.
  • Plate tectonics is essential for the emergence and sustenance of complex life.
  • A large moon is needed for its tides.
  • Few mass extinction events.

Again, as with the Drake equation the results depend on what variables you consider important, and what values you give them.

In an almost humorous turn of events, one advocate of the Rare Earth Theory points to the lack of extraterrestrials as proof.

The detractors of the Rare Earth theory build their positions in different ways. They feel that the stated preconditions for technological civilizations are too stringent. According to David Darling, the Rare Earth hypothesis is neither hypothesis nor prediction, but merely a description of how life arose on Earth. In his view Ward and Brownlee have done nothing more than select the factors that best suit their case.

At the end of the day, the Rare Earth Theory and the Drake equation before it require too many estimates to be useful. If the Earth is a one in a billion long shot, there are probably forty in this galaxy.

Personally, I remain open to the possibility there is intelligent life out there, and that brings me back to Fermi’s question, “Where is everybody?”

Exoplanets – the Fermi Paradox


In November 2013 astronomers estimated that 22±8% of Sun-like stars have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. Assuming 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, that would be 11 billion potentially habitable Earths, rising to 40 billion if red dwarfs are included.

40 billion! Imagine that. That’s just in our galaxy. According to the best estimates of astronomers there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. That could be 4,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Earth like planets I think. I might have missed an order of magnitude.

Our story begins during the summer of 1951. A nucleus of physicists (most veterans of the Manhattan Project) had reassembled at Los Alamos to create the hydrogen bomb– Bethe, Fermi, Gamow, Garwin, Teller. During lunches at the Fuller Lodge, Fermi loved to pose rhetorical questions, which he then proceeded to answer. They group had been joking about the recent UFO reports, when, out of the blue, Fermi asked “Don’t you ever wonder where everybody is?”

Fermi concluded, if interstellar travel is possible, it ought to be positively crowded out there.

However, the question had been asked and continued to beg for an answer. In 1961, Frank Drake, an American astronomer developed the Drake equation. This equation gave an estimate of the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which radio-communication might be possible. The equation itself isn’t particularly useful. Too many unknowns.

Back in 1961, there was no way to estimate the number of planets that could support life. Today from the exoplanet research we know that there could be 40 billion such planets. That still leaves the following variables to consider:

  • fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
  • fi = the fraction of planets with life that develop intelligent life (civilizations)
  • fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a radio communication
  • L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

In 1961, Drake made estimates for all the factors and concluded that there could be twenty such civilizations in our Galaxy. However, it all depends on what you guess. Even today, the equation can produce a result from a low of 2 to a high of 280,000,000. In other words, we don’t know.

Is the Earth such a rare combination of conditions that it is unique in the Universe?

Have other intelligences arisen, but found that space travel was too expensive, and didn’t bother to broadcast by radio?

Have other intelligences arisen, but the lifespan of technological civilizations is too short for communication? This resolution leads to the conclusion that technological civilizations doom themselves.

In other words, we don’t know.


To see some of my short stories go to

Exoplanets – the Weird and the Wacky


Exoplanets. Science fiction writers have assumed that other stars had planet from almost the beginning. However, it wasn’t until 1988 that Canadian astronomers Bruce Campbell, G. A. H. Walker, and Stephenson Yang published a paper about their discovery. That was fifteen years after the first Star Wars movie.

Since then, the entire subject of exoplanets has exploded. There are 1931 planets in 1222 planetary systems including 484 multiple planetary systems as of 14 June 2015. And some of those exoplanets are far stranger that science fiction writers imagining.

Consider Kepler-16b. This planet with a mass of about 1/3 of Jupiter orbits a binary star system. From its surface you could see two suns in the sky.

Kepler-11 has six planets orbiting in circles smaller than Venus’ orbit. Furthermore five of those planets are even closer to their parent star than Mercury is to our sun. Crowded. This stellar system could force revisions to the current theories about planet creation.

The term Hot Jupiter refers to Jupiter sized planets so close to their star that their year can be measured in days or hours.

Some of the Jupiter sized planets are significantly larger than you would expect. The largest to date is twenty-nine times larger than Jupiter. Is that a planet or a brown dwarf star?

What about a planet that is entirely made of water? It’s possible.

The impact of these discoveries to modern thought particularly touches on two viewpoints. One is the ‘rare earth theory’, which posits that the planet Earth is a unique combination of conditions. The other is Fermi’s Paradox. In 1950 Fermi commented on the size of the universe and exclaimed “Where are they?” Two different sides to the same question about the rest of the universe.

In November 2013 astronomers estimated that 22±8% of Sun-like stars have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. Assuming 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, that would be 11 billion potentially habitable Earths, rising to 40 billion if red dwarfs are included.

40 billion! Imagine that.

To see some of my short stories go to

A Tribute to Christopher Lee


On June 7 of this year, at the age of 93, Christopher Lee died. If it feels like you just saw him in a movie recently, you probably did. He starred as Saruman in ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’ and four other productions in the last two years. He appeared in two-hundred and fifty movies during his career. That ignores the voice over work, the television series, and probably some other stuff. I’d like to be that productive when I reach my nineties.

It is his villains for which we will remember him. He played Saruman in ‘Lord or Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’. That’s six movies. He played Count Dooku in two Star Wars prequels. He also played the Frankenstein monster in ‘The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)’. Lee stood five inches over six feet, which helped for the role. That led to Dracula in ‘Dracula (1958)’ and the Mummy in ‘The Mummy (1959)’.

If you get a chance, watch ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1965)’ where he again played the blood sucker, without a single line of dialogue. Lee said he refused to speak the poor dialogue he was given, but screenwriter Jimmy Sangster claimed that the script did not contain any lines for the character.

Lee himself was an interesting and erudite man. Besides English, he spoke Italian, French, Spanish and German, and was able to converse in Swedish, Russian and Greek. This led to one of his roles. The casting director needed an actor who could speak Spanish, and fence. Lee could do both, and got the part of the Spanish Captain in ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951)’. Lee played a leading role in the German film ‘The Puzzle of the Red Orchid (1962)’, speaking German.

During WWII, Lee served with the Royal Air Force. Lee was having his last training session before his first solo flight when he suffered from headaches and blurred vision. The medical officer diagnosed a failure of his optic nerve and Lee was told he would never be allowed to fly again. In an effort to be useful, he volunteered for RAF intelligence where he served until 1946. Lee mentioned that he was attached to the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol, the precursor of the SAS, but always declined to go into details.

Fu Manchu, Comte de Rochefort, Francisco Scaramanga in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ and Lucifer are other villainous roles he played in a number of pictures. However, he didn’t feel he was typecast. He liked to quote something Anthony Hopkins said, “I don’t play villains, I play people.” If you check his films you’ll also find him played Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft Holmes, Ramses and even the pope.

To add to his acting Lee had an operatic bass voice and sometime sang in his pictures including ‘The Wicker Man’. You might want to look up his metal Album ‘Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross’ which was released in 2010. Lee would have been in his late eighties then. Who says music is a young man’s game?

Let’s leave the last word to Lee. “I haven’t spent my entire career playing the guy in the bad hat, although I have to say that the bad guy is frequently much more interesting than the good guy.”


To see some of my short stories go to




The Greatest Inhuman Villains


Inhuman villains can be anything from Dracula, to the perfect storm. These villains are more monstrous because they are monsters, lacking the weaknesses that a human is heir to.

Here we wander into the realms of science fiction, fantasy and horror. The aliens, the orcs, the dragons are all in the running. The other type of story that relies on these villains, are a class of stories known as man against Nature. Hurricanes, typhoons, twisters can all play the part of the villain.

When nature is the villain, it must be merciless, murderous, and relentless. In ‘To Build a Fire’ Jack London, describes the conflict between a man and the cold of a Klondike winter on the trail. There is no sun by day, for this is the land of the eternal night. In the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. This means it is colder than fifty below, colder than eighty degrees of frost. Then the cold begins to eat the man, one bite at a time. First the cheeks and nose. Even reading this story on the warmest day of the year, makes me shiver and reach for a sweater.

The problem with nature as the villain is that this choice lacks any emotions, unless the author uses pathetic fallacy. So while the northern cold has no anger or rage against the man, it also has no potential for pity. This is a villain without remorse, who cannot be bought off, cannot be bargained with.

At the other extreme for inhuman villains lies the vampire and the preeminent of the ilk must be Dracula from the book by Bram Stoker. Here we have a monster that lives on human blood. However, it is the way Stoker suggests that Dracula wants more than blood. He wants to seduce and corrupt Lucy, turning her into a monster like him. This forces the heroes, including Lucy’s husband to stake her heart, behead her, and fill her mouth with garlic. That erotic element continues to run through vampire stories to this day.

For relentless, the award for a machine has to go to the robot Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He arrives from the future naked, but almost before the movie has really started, the Terminator kills a gang member, a gun-shop manager, and two other women named “Sarah Connor” listed in the telephone directory. Even near the end of the movie, the one armed, legless Terminator continues to try to kill Sarah. I couldn’t have been the only person impressed. In 2008, The Terminator was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the American National Film Registry.

To round out the list, I think I have to go with ‘He who must not be named’. When a character is so frightening, that even his name has power, he is a force without putting in an appearance. Lord Voldemort impinges in some way on all of the Harry Potter books and movies. Yet, he does surprisingly little. Instead Harry has different lessor villains to battle as he grows. This is the most human of our inhuman villains. Partly this is because he began his life with birth. The other reason is that Rowling has admitted that Voldemort was “a sort of” Adolf Hitler.

I know. I left off your favorite inhuman villain. Perhaps it was HAL9000, the wicked witch of the west, Darth Vador, the shark from Jaws, Freddy Kruger, the Joker, or any one of the evil queens from fairy tales.


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These are Some of my Favorite Villains


We all have favorites. Our favorite flower, favorite season, favorite hero, and favorite villain. Let’s talk about the villains.

Now I’m going to divide villains into two categories, human and inhuman. A human villain is a man, woman or child without supernatural powers. Moriarty, Lex Luther and Hannibal Lector are examples. Inhuman villains can be anything from Dracula, to the perfect storm.

One problem with both heroes and villains is the way our society recycles them. Consider the stories of Robin Hood and the Sherriff of Nottingham. There have been 18 films, six television series, eight animations, four parodies and five retellings. All have the same characters. Personally I think the low point was an animated series names “Rocket Robin Hood”. This Canadian animated television series, placed the characters and conflicts of the classic Robin Hood legend in a futuristic, outer space setting. Check it out on YouTube and cringe.

Let’s talk about human villains that have stayed with me over the years.

Who could forget Inspector Jarvert? He was born to a fortune-teller whose husband was in the galleys. Javert grew up in the galleys, conscious of the fact that he had only two choices of profession open to him. He could become a predator on society like his father, or a protector of society. Here is a man who has only one faith and one following, the letter of the law. What makes Javert (who has no first name) a great villain is his humanity and rejection of all that is human. He has no kindness, no mercy, and no empathy.

All his strength is channeled into a fanatic observance and support for the law, and in his case his hunt for Valjean which lasts years. How does Valjean defeat Javert? With mercy. When Valjean spares Javert, he destroys the basic tenants of the Inspector’s morality, that convicts could never be good citizens. Suddenly he realizes that he is the monster, not the man he pursued. That drives him to suicide.

Who could forget the creation of Dr. Frankenstein? The creature is not Frankenstein. In the novel, the monster is identified via words such as “creature”, “monster”, “fiend”, “wretch”, “vile insect”, “demon”, “being”, and “it”. Speaking to Victor Frankenstein, the monster refers to himself as “the Adam of your labors.”

Made from the best portions of corpses, and animated by science, we have a creation that is a blank slate at the beginning. However, Dr. Frankenstein is repulsed by his creation and abandons it. The creature finds nothing in the world of man but hatred and rejection. This hardens his heart to mankind, and he demands the Doctor, create a mate for him to sooth his loneliness.

What should be a tragic figure, by his actions becomes a monster. Again we see the unyielding determination and lack of moral compass that we see in Javert.

Who could forget Richard III? Shakespeare in his tragedies, concentrated on the fatal flaw the destroyed the protagonist. In his histories, his characters had to fit both the history, and the politics of the day. In the play Richard commits every vile act known to man. He drives his sick brother, the king, to death, has the princes murdered in the tower, and more. Shakespeare lays the foundation for all of this in the opening soliloquy, where Richard states his aim, to play the villain, to be subtle, false and treacherous. He blames all this on his deformity.

He had drive, ambition, and courage. Again it is his lack of a moral compass that makes him the villain. In the play he is so strong and successful that he destroys all his enemies until the final battle.

Who could forget Iago from Othello? At the start of the play he states the reason for his rage. While he has served Othello, he feels he was passed over for promotion and plans to destroy both his lord and his rival. What makes Iago so intense a villain is the manner in which he accomplishes this.

Each one of these villains remains in my mind long after the book is set down and the play is finished. They are all strong, smart, almost fanatical in obsession, and without moral qualms of any sort. All almost succeed, and in the process cause terrible suffering that we can see as the story unwinds.

Yet they are only men!


To see some of my short stories go to

More about Villains


There exist certain rules that apply to villains in almost all stories. Whether your story is a western or a mystery these rules remain.

First, the villain must be powerful enough to threaten the hero. Without that power, the character is no longer a villain but merely an annoyance. The power can be physical, financial, political or psychological. Perhaps the villain could reveal a secret that would discredit the hero.

Second, the villain must be intelligent. What makes Moriarty such a great villain? His mind matches Holmes. Why was Hannibal Lector so terrifying? His intelligence and how he uses it. Even in comic books you find the brilliant villain. Lex Luther is an example.

Up to this point we could be describing any character in the story. The villain has some other characteristics that fit him. He/she may not have all of them, but they will be the basis for his actions which the reader views as evil.

Third, the villain is arrogant. He/she breaks the rules because they shouldn’t apply to him. For this reason he feels justified stealing from his clients, speeding on the highway, blackmailing the hero, or some other nefarious deeds. The villain can hide his arrogance from the world. Remember Uriah Heep from David Copperfield.

Fourth, the villain has negative emotions which drive him to act. I’m referring to anger, hatred, greed, jealousy and fear. This is perhaps the point where the hero and the villain are most dissimilar. There’s a very common connection between fear and anger. What makes a person afraid is what they hate. While the hero can be afraid, he acknowledges this within himself. Our villain won’t. This gives the author scope for making him/her a more complex character.

Finally, the villain is implacable. He/she cannot be avoided. He/she cannot be talked down. He/she won’t stop. This is the trickiest aspect of the character. Do it wrong and you have inhuman monster. Perhaps that’s why so many modern stories rely on the psychopath as the villain. To avoid this trope, simply work harder on showing his emotions and values.

Remember every great story needs a great villain.

Why my Villains Act that way


I wrote earlier that the villain is often more complex than the hero. He has to act in a way that is wrong. On the other hand, no man is a villain in his own eyes. How do I make this work?

As human beings we perceive the world through our own personal viewpoint. This includes all those things we believe to be true. Let me give you an example.

A 64-year-old man, Edgar Nernberg, was excavating a basement in March when he caught sight of black outlines of five fish in a block of sandstone. He contacted a paleontologist at the University of Calgary, Darla Zelenitsky. She reports the fossils were of a primitive fish, dating back 60 million years

Nernberg thinks the fish were most likely from the Great Flood in the Bible, about 4,300 years ago. Nernberg is a creationist who believes the Earth is roughly 6,000 years old.

Here we have two people living in the same city, working together on fossils, whose perception of the world is entirely different. You can bet neither of them will change their belief about the age of the universe.

We have all sorts of issues where people truly and passionately hold different beliefs. That’s why it’s a good rule to keep politics and religion out of the conversation. Other topics. Some people believe there is a relationship between childhood inoculations and autism. Some people believe there are aliens on other worlds in the universe. Other people believe the lunar landings were faked. And at the top of the list are the people who believe we are living in an enormous simulation inside some super computer.

It’s not the belief, but how it affects the person’s behavior. Nernberg and Zelenitsky can work together despite their different beliefs. When a person on drugs believes they can fly and tries to do so, the result can be fatal. Note the second part of the sentence. It’s acting on the belief that has the consequences.

Let’s put this all together in a story outline. A deeply religious man sees an alien spaceship landing. He believes that aliens must be the spawn of the devil so he kills the alien. If that story sounds familiar, catch an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ called ‘The Gift’.

Today the internet abounds with conspiracy theories, all with their adherents. Lizard People rule the world? Global Warming? Global cooling? The CERN Large Hadron Collider will create a black hole that will consume the earth?

Start with a belief. Then add an ego that won’t accept the possibility he/she is wrong. See where it goes because you have created the starting point for a truly horrific villain.

To see some of my short stories go to

As we Age


In the spring of 1992, I went to a conference where a fellow with nerd glasses explained that ‘This is the last User Interface you will ever have to learn.’ That was Windows 3.1. Then came Windows 95, ME, XP, Vista, 7, 8.1. Every damn one of them has been different. Seven different ones in less than thirteen years.

For me this is a pain. Heck, I remember when programs were keypunched onto cards. For other people this is more than an annoyance. It limits their ability to use and enjoy technology.

Consider the typewriter. The user interface (i.e. the keyboard) has remained the same since 1873. This despite the fact it was originally designed to slow typists so that they didn’t jam the machine.

The telephone has gone through three user interfaces. Originally, the operator simply lifted the receiver and told the operator what number he/she wanted to call. That gave way to the rotary dialer, circa 1920, and then to the push button dialing which was first introduced in 1962.

In 1970 Alvin Toffler’s book ‘Future Shock’ was published. His shortest definition for the term was when a person decided there was too much change in too short a time.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I want a cell phone to work as a phone. A few years ago I upgraded from my flip phone to a smart phone. There are things about the flip phone that I miss, such as:

  • Charge it on Sunday and it lasts all week long.
  • No pocket dialing.
  • A Display I can read in direct sunlight.
  • A phone that fits in a small pocket.

It’s time for a new phone, and I’m thinking about going back a step. The Android OS for cell phones was introduced on Sept, 23, 2008. Version 5.1.1 of the operating system came out last April. Who really wants five revisions in seven years?

For seniors the ‘Future Shock’ is more intense. While seniors in Canada own cellphones (61%) only a few have a smart phone. “Too damn complicated” is what they say if you ask them.

The problem grows much worse when the senior’s faculties are dimmed with age. One company from Australia has completely redesigned the cell phone, with such people in mind. Some of the features include:

  • Personalised menu with pictures of contacts.
  • Long battery life.
  • Light enough to be worn with the provided lanyard so it is not misplaced.
  • A customized back with critical medical information and address details.
  • Built in protection to avoid bill shock if user forgets to hang up.

However, it’s more than just that the device is complicated. The response time for icons on an Apple screen is 0.7 seconds, but the over-65s have a response time of about one second. The computer demands more than the senior can deliver. The nerves in the finger become less sensitive with age, meaning older people may “touch” far more heavily, especially after years of pounding manual keyboards. Finally, tests suggest that if an older person has a slight tremor, it can be registered on a device as a swipe rather than a touch.

Small wonder seniors prefer real buttons to touch screens.

It is estimated that, by 2030, 19% of the US population will be over 65 – roughly the same proportion that currently own iPhones. That’s a pretty big chunk of the market.

Personally, I want the robot companion from the Movie, “Robot and Frank.” Then I’ll have the robot answer my calls on my cellphone.

To see some of my short stories go to


The Villain is the Key


I think the villain is more important to the story than the hero. What? Really. The hero must conform to some standards, but the villain can be anything at all. As a writer I have much more latitude with the villain. Furthermore, the better the villain, so to speak, the more the hero can excel and the better the story.

Watching the ‘Outlander’ series on television, I was struck by the character of Black Jack Randall. As the story progresses, this character gets more and more evil. Each time he returns, he becomes more of a monster. I’m certain this was intentional on the part of Diana Gabaldon.

She’s not the first writer to demand much of the villains. Charles Dickens created fascinating despicable ones. Consider David Copperfield. In that book his first villain was Murdstone the father-in-law. But that wasn’t enough for Dickens. He created Uriah Heap to threaten his hero’s love interest in the most diabolical manner. Finally, there’s Steerforth, who seems at first to be the quintessential hero, but lacks the moral fiber. Dickens needed so many villains because his heroes were unappealing.

Other writers have created multiple villains to match a single hero. From comic books to crime stories the hero survives to return in the next installment, but the villain must be defeated.

However, a good villain is a complicated creation because he/she must serve multiple purposes within the story. First, the villain’s actions usually create the causative incident that starts the story. Where would Sleeping Beauty be if the witch hadn’t attended the christening? Snow White would never have met the dwarfs if her step-mother had acted like Mary Poppins.

Furthermore, the villain must come into conflict with the hero. So the villain must have strong needs and desires that drive him forward. That could be a lust for money, a lust for a woman, or a desire for revenge. Often writers make their villain insane. Hannibal Lector comes to mind.

Finally, the villain acts as a foil to the hero. The villains’ looks, actions, feelings, exist to create a contrast. The sour makes the sweet taste even stronger.

However, there’s a trap in all of this. No man is a villain in his own mind. We are all the good guys. To make the best villain, you must create a character that starts the ball rolling, keeps interfering, had strong visible emotions, and is different to the hero, without creating an inhuman monster.

Well, if you want to create an inhuman monster, think of Stephen King’s novel ‘It’. He creates a mysterious monster that appears as a clown. However, the bullies, led by Henry Bowers, are the more oppressive villains. If you do create an inhuman monster, then don’t make it a person. Do you remember the shark in ‘Jaws’ by Peter Benchley?

If you want to create a great story, start with a great villain.

To see some of my short stories go to



Murder by Medication/food Interaction


One of the fun things about writing is figuring new and interesting crimes. I sure hope no one is checking my Web searches. I could be in trouble.

I had an idea for a crime story. The perfect murder would be one caused by something no one expected to cause a problem. However, Mythbusters have destroyed a lot of great ideas, especially the ones with disappearing bullets made of frozen meat or ice. Darn party poopers.

I decided on death by medication. Right, killing someone with their own meds. How? Having the medicine interact with some food or drink. Everyone knows about drugs and alcohol, so I decided to search for something new. And I found a bunch, not fatal ones, but still interesting.

Bronchodilators treat and prevent breathing problems from bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The combination of the Bronchodilators and caffeine can create side effects, such as excitability, nervousness, and rapid heartbeat.

ACE inhibitors alone or with other medicines lower blood pressure. It also increases the amount of potassium in your body. Too much potassium can be harmful and can cause an irregular heartbeat and heart palpitations. It would interact with foods high in potassium, such as bananas, oranges, green leafy vegetables, and salt substitutes that contain potassium.

Glycosides, such as digoxin, treat heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms. They help control the heart rate and help the heart work better. Foods high in fiber may decrease the digoxin in your body. Digoxin with black licorice (which contains the glycyrrhizin) can cause irregular heart beat and heart attack.

Thyroid medicines control hypothyroidism but they don’t cure it. They reverse the symptoms. Coffee and Black tea reduce the medicine’s effectiveness by up to 35%.

Antipsychotics treat the symptoms of schizophrenia and acute manic or mixed episodes from bipolar disorder. Caffeine can increase the amount of medicine in your blood and cause side effects.

MAO inhibitors treat depression. Someone who eats an excessive amount of chocolate after taking an MAO inhibitor may experience a sharp rise in blood pressure.

Grapefruit and its juice are especially nasty. It increases the absorption of the drug into the bloodstream, creating a higher concentration of a drug. With Statins this can lead to liver damage. It can also interact with some blood pressure drugs, organ transplant rejection drugs, anti-anxiety drugs, anti-arrhythmia drugs and antihistamines.

Pomegranate juice has its own list of drugs it can interact with. In its case it increases the impact by slowing the body’s ability to break down the drugs.

I decided to stop before I got into herbal medications. I’m certain there are murderous combinations of herbs and medications. Would you like a cup of Foxglove tea?

So, death by coffee, banana, chocolate, bran, or licorice. Choices. Choices. Now I have the murder, all I have to discover is how the murderer trips up. That’s the trouble with writing. It’s one problem after another.


To see some of my short stories go to

Science Fiction and the Car

science ficion cars

I love writing and technology. Naturally, I’ve read a lot of science fiction over the years. Looking back, the technological hits and misses astound me. I’m talking about ‘Near Future Science Fiction.’

For example, Heinlein wrote a number of stories about the world less than a hundred years in the future. In 1940 he wrote a short story called ‘Let there be light’ in which the hero had invented a 99% efficient solar panel. Still waiting on that one, aren’t we?

Transportation seems one area science fiction writers have neglected. You can find lots of stories with spaceships, but very few with commuters. About the only form of transportation that seems to inspire stories is teleportation. I’m thinking about ‘Granny won’t knit’ by Theodore Sturgeon, ‘The Stars My Destination’ by Alfred Bester and the Known Space universe of Larry Niven.

For some reason Science Fiction writers were convinced that personal helicopters would replace cars. I agree that would solve the highway problem, but the potential for fender benders makes me shudder. Others posited antigravity sleds, helicopters without the revolving blades in effect.

However, the automobile has been pretty much ignored. Automated taxis have popped up as a sideline. The one in the original ‘Total Recall’ was amusing. The only story that I can remember that focused on future cars is ‘Code Three’ by Rick Raphael. It revolved around the lives of a couple of highway patrol men in a future where automobiles travelled on roads at speeds up to 400 MPH.

I think that the reason automobiles have been ignored, is that nobody has found anything that could be done to create an interesting story with them. Roads are another matter. Whether we are talking about ‘The Roads must Roll’ by Heinlein, or ‘Roadmarks’ by Roger Zelazny, the appeal of the road is about the journey. Since all stories are journeys of one form or another, this makes sense.

How about a story with an automated taxi cab? I can think of a great opening. The taxi pulls up to the police station, but no one gets out. A cop looks inside the cab and sees a dead man.

If I write it now, would it be science fiction or a modern mystery?

To see some of my short stories go to



85 Percent Longer Battery Life


This story astounds me. An eighth grade student was given the U.S. Naval Science award for discovering how to extend the life of hearing aid batteries by 85%. I’m not kidding. How you can do this will shock you.

Ethan Manuell studied hearing aid batteries. He found that waiting five minutes to install them after removing the protective tape, increased the battery life by 85 percent.  How can you get the improvement? After you take the strip off the battery, wait five minutes before you install it in your hearing aid. That’s it!

So for those of you without hearing aids, here are some facts about their batteries. These tiny batteries are made with zinc. To start them you take off a tape or strip that keeps the air out. The battery then works on the oxidation of the zinc when it is exposed to the oxygen in the air.

Just tearing the strip off starts the battery, but it takes some time to get up to it full voltage. That may be behind the benefit of waiting five minutes before installing it.

The batteries come in several sizes, the smallest is size 10 and the largest is size 675. The smaller the hearing aid, the smaller the battery. Now for the shocker. Here are the life expectancies for these batteries.

Size 10: 3-5 days
Size 312: 7-10 days
Size 13: 10-14 days
Size 675: 14-17 days.

That translates into a cost as follows:

Size 10: an average of $150/year
Size 312: an average of $80/year
Size 13: an average of $50/year
Size 675: an average of $30/year.

Manuell wears a hearing aid himself, so he knew these facts. He knew that any increase in battery life could shave this cost down considerably.

Officially known as ‘The Effect of Wait Time on the Lifespan of Hearing Aid Batteries,’ the study was reviewed by the Olmsted Medical Center. Spread the word. This will help the roughly seven million people who wear hearing aids in the United States.

To see some of my short stories go to


Science Fiction Crime Stories


sf crime

I have long enjoyed the Science Fiction crime story. Perhaps my favorite one was written by Alfred Bester, “The Demolished Man”. How do you plan and commit a murder in a society that has telepathic mind readers working for the police? It’s an inverted detective story, from the criminal’s viewpoint.

George O. Smith also addressed the issue of telepathy and crime in his own way.

Probably the best argument that ever occurred for readers was the once between Isaac Asimov and John W. Campbell. Asimov thought that Science Fiction could be applied to any genre or type of novel. Campbell disagreed, saying the science fiction writer could invent “facts” in his imaginary future that the reader would not know. Asimov proved this point with “Caves of Steel” a murder mystery. Asimov went on to write a number of stories about Wendell Urth, some involving outrageous puns. This isn’t surprising from a man who belonged to a group devoted to Nero Wolfe mysteries.

Would you prefer murder mixed with magic? Then look up Lord Darcy stories, created by Randall Garrett. There ten short stories and a couple of novels with this character for you to enjoy.

I apologize right now for not naming your favorite, but I want to right a blog not a novel on the topic. There are just so many out there.

However, what got me started was the whining of a mystery writer. He was complaining that modern technology had ruined the mystery story. DNA testing made proving the killer absolute. Cell phones gave everyone a chance to call the police. Cameras and facial recognition software meant a person’s movement could be tracked absolutely.

Crime stories aren’t about technology but about human passion. Science fiction isn’t about how a society exists but what the possibilities there can be. Imagine a world where the police have drones to patrol and can incapacitate criminals with a ‘stunner’. Wait, that will probably be real before the story is published.

Philip K. Dick and William Gibson pointed the way for us. They invented new crimes for their SF stories. I’m going to go and invent some new crime, one with a twist and a bit of a spin.

The PEN controversy


PEN American has decided to give the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award. This decision has met with some blow back. Six authors have decided to protest the award by withdrawing from the PEN American Center’s annual gala on May 5.

While I knew of the horrific events of January 7 of this year, I didn’t really know the publication. After all it’s in French, a language I have ignored for the most part since I left high school. The protest caught my attention and I did a little digging.

From what I can determine, Charlie Hebdo, isn’t fearlessly uncovering plots, conspiracies, and corruption. Imagine Mad Magazine satire targeting politicians, and religions. In 1982 one of it cartoonists admitted on radio that he was anti-Semitic. He continued to work for the magazine until 2008 when some of his work drew a complaint. The magazine’s editor noted that the publication had been sued thirteen times by Catholic organizations, and seemed proud of it. One Cartoon depicted the ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’ engaged in sodomy.

Charlie Hebdo isn’t the only magazine the goes for shock. In 1991, in Canada, the Frank magazine ran a satirical advertisement for a contest which invited young Tories to “Deflower Caroline Mulroney.” Her father, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, threatened physical harm to those responsible. Later he joined with several women’s groups in denouncing the ad as an incitement to rape.

In every democracy there are limits to Free Speech. “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” That’s the gist of a 1919 U.S. Supreme Court written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In 2007 the European Union approved legislation that would make denying the Holocaust punishable by jail sentences. Canada and other nations have laws against hate speech.

I’m not certain we need laws against blasphemy to keep people from printing a cartoon featuring rolls of toilet paper labeled “Bible,” “Koran,” and “Torah.” with the headline “In the shitter, all the religions”. However, the world has enough angry people striving for attention of any sort.

I condemn the murder of those people, but I wouldn’t chant ‘Je suis Charlie.’ I certainly wouldn’t buy the paper.


To see some of my short stories go to



Why read fiction?


It’s a valid question. Are there any benefits to reading fiction?

It turns out that reading fiction does have benefits. A study in the Journal ‘Science’ found that people, after reading fiction, scored better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence. These are human interaction skills used when you try to read someone’s body language or guess what is on their mind.

In other words, reading fiction should be part of your preparation for the Friday night poker game.

Another study discovered that reading fiction makes you more empathetic with people. Reading nonfiction makes you less so.

Consider another study. You take one hundred university students. Sophomores are the preferred test subject. The University of Toronto has some many of them to experiment with. You give half of them eight short stories and the other half eight essays. Do you think there will be a difference when they were tested?

Those who read the fiction stories expressed greater comfort with uncertainty and chaos, a key to greater creativity. It would also help with that poker game again.

In 2007, The Chinese government held the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention. Why? They wanted to foster and improve innovation and inventiveness in its society.

The U.S. prison industry has a pretty simple algorithm that can predict the need for incarceration in fifteen years. It’s based what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds can’t read. If there was ever a case for improved reading education in grade school, this is it.

Why does reading fiction change the way people think and perceive each other? I have my theory, and I’ll bore you with it. The Cherokee tribe of Native Americans had a proverb that said “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes”. When you read a novel, you don’t walk a mile; you walk a thousand miles in the character’s shoes.

Nonfiction books hold facts and arguments. Fiction holds experiences and emotions. By reading fiction, we can pilot a space ship, or travel through the jungle. We can defeat the pirates and save the princess, or solve the crime and capture the killer. We can learn how the coward flees the battle and regrets it until he wins the ‘Red Badge of Courage’.

Small wonder fiction readers are more emphatic and more adventurous.

To see some of my short stories go to

Science Fiction Poetry


Since I enjoy poetry (I don’t write it) and enjoy Science Fiction, my research into the Hugo Wars uncovered an interesting fact. There’s no Hugo for Science Fiction poetry.

Now science fiction magazines have published poetry for almost a century now. The Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA) created its own awards, the Rhysling, to make up for this oversight. This award had been handed out continuously since 1978. If you look the award up, you’ll recognize some of the winners as authors you know.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Poetry and speculative fiction have a long association. The medieval poetry of gods and monsters hold the stories of Siegfried and Beowulf. Bryon’s Childe Harold inspired two multi-book stories, one from Gordon R. Dickson and the other from Stephen King.

This, of course, begins another of those continuous discussions of ‘What is Poetry’ with an additional twist. What makes it SF poetry?

I won’t try to answer that. I don’t want to start any flame wars. However, I think I can point to a shining example that all of the SFPA would agree with. Their award is named after a fictional character, a poet, in a Robert Heinlein story, ‘The Green Hills of Earth’. The story is a biography of “Noisy” Rhysling and includes a song with the same name as the story. Here’s a bit of it:

Out ride the sons of Terra,
Far drives the thundering jet,
Up leaps a race of Earthmen,
Out, far, and onward yet —

We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth;
Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.
–Robert A Heinlein

Is it poetry? I think so. Is it SF poetry? With rockets and space flight throughout the solar system it definitely is. What gives it such power? The poem’s strength lies in the emotional impact. Heinlein manages in a few lines to capture the homesickness of every person who has left his familiar world for another.

Go and search the Internet and find more Science Fiction poetry. With English the most spoken language in the world there must be a few thousand who will like Science Fiction poetry.

To see some of my short stories go to

Hugo Wars


In a world of crowd funding, flash mobs, and internet anarchy, it feels that the current Hugo awards controversy was inevitable.

What are the Hugo Awards? Since 1953, these awards for the best Science Fiction and Fantasy published in English have been given out at the annual World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). Hugo Award nominees and winners are chosen by supporting or attending members of Worldcon. The rules about nomination are critical to the rest of this story.

To become a supporting member requires buying a membership for forty dollars. A group known as the Sad Puppies took advantage of rules, and the low participation of readers to mount a campaign that nominated their slate of stories for the 2015.

Who are the Sad Puppies? This is a group organized by sci-fi writers Larry Correia and Brad R. Torgersen. Is it really a group? From what I’ve read this year was not the first time these two have tried to influence the nomination process. In 2014, they had some success with about seventy supporters.

What happened this year? On February 1st, 2015, Torgersen published the Sad Puppies 3 slate for this year’s Hugo Awards. On February 5th, the conservative news site Breitbart published an article about Sad Puppies. On April 4th, the Hugo Awards announced the 2015 finalists, featuring many authors and works listed on the Sad Puppies slate.

Now we get to the name calling. The Sad puppies say they wanted to draw attention to authors and creators who were suffering from an undeserved lack of attention due to the political climate in sci-fi. That’s right. This is about politics in Science Fiction.

Not the Science Fiction has been immune to politics. H.G. Wells’ novel ‘The Time Machine’ has a distinctly socialist message. Jack London’s novel ‘The Iron Heel’ chronicles the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States. Who could forget ‘Animal Farm’ or ‘1984’?

Politics, race, roles of women have all been addressed in Science Fiction for decades. Not just in books either. Rod Serling often used aliens to raise an issues related to race in ‘The Twilight Zone’, and the first interracial kiss on American television was shown on an episode of Star Trek.

I remember how the war in Vietnam divided the SF community as it did the world: Heinlein supporting, and Asimov protesting. Both groups ran advertisements in the SF magazines of the time.

Personally, I don’t care if the author is black or white, man or woman. I’m interested in the fun the story gives me. I read Samuel R. Delany long before I knew he was black. And Leigh Brackett long before I knew she was a woman.

However, the issues of race and gender in Science Fiction have come out of the fiction and into our reality. As for the Hugos, it seems that the awards have entered the world of party politics, with the battle lines drawn between the left and the right, the liberals and the conservatives.

I wonder what next year will bring. Attack ads on the internet? Conventions? Will the community divide along political lines? Maybe the Hugos will implode, leaving the Nebula awards as the only ones for SF writers.

Welcome to ‘The Brave New World’.

To see some of my short stories go to

Finding a Dojo

Well I thought about Tai Chi. I researched and found classes in the 108 step form, the traditional one of the Taoist Tai Chi Society. I attended a class and remembered why I keep leaving Tai Chi.

Tai Chi is demanding, while appearing very easy. That’s why those little old Chinese women in the park on a sunny afternoon are so full of energy. They have been practicing it for years. The advocates will tell you that Tai Chi will regulate body weight, improve cognitive, lung, digestive and heart functioning as well as skin tone and bone structure. It helps people with back pain, and acts as a moving meditation to reduce anxiety. When I’m another fifteen years older I’ll probably go back to it again.

I remember the last time I studied it. That summer I tried playing badminton in a Tai Chi manner. It didn’t work. At this point in my life I need something younger.

As a child my father taught me boxing, and sent me to learn Judo. I learned that Judo is blind to a punch in the nose. As a teenager I tried Shotokan Karate. I didn’t stick at it. Years later I tried Gōjū-ryū karate. Then I moved. After I while I found a new school and tried it once more. I have my yellow belt twice, which is not as good as an orange belt.

It took me a while to realize that my problem with Karate was with Karate. I didn’t mind the fifty pushups and sit ups. I didn’t mind training with people half my age. That sharpened me up. Studying katas, and practicing kicks, block and blows that I never saw used in sparring, felt confusing.

This time around I vowed, no Karate. Besides, I’m older, slower and stiffer. I want something my stiff old body could use if I needed to get myself out of trouble. The ads for Krav Maga, and at first it looked perfect. A system designed for self-defense.

I researched. Hmmm. I had a feeling it would include fifty pushups and sit ups. I looked at clips on YouTube presenting various tactics. I agreed with their philosophy which was to get free and get gone when trouble approached. Then I watched a clip of how to defend against a robber with a gun. The robber stood holding the gun at arm’s length with one hand. Who does that? When the instructor got control of the gun he used a two hand grip. I did some research on the Web. Critics of Krav Maga didn’t say nice things.

A few years ago, I was stuck in Jacksonville Beach for a couple of months. I found a little dojo in something called Wing Chun. Now that’s a Southern (Chinese) form of Kung Fu that was originally developed to allow the weak to protect themselves from the strong. I took a couple months of classes while my engine was repaired. I liked it. Well I liked much of it.

Wing Chun is Chinese boxing. It puts the emphasis on relaxation, centerline, and balance. The instructor described it as old man boxing. Best of all, I was not expected to kick anyone in the head. I didn’t have to do all that stretching.

I’ve found a couple of schools that teach Wing Chun around me. Next week I’ll take a look at them and see which one fits better. Evidently there are eleven different types or branches of Wing Chun. I have no idea what I’ll find.

To see some of my short stories go to

Wasting Time Researching Exotic Martial Arts


Procrastination is a writer’s tool to avoid writing. It’s so common, that we make jokes about it. Remember the one about sharpening pencils before committing words to paper? I heard of one writer that would clean her entire house to avoid writing. However, with the web and the computer there are so many other ways to avoid writing.

First I must check my email. Who knows? There could be a short story acceptance in there. After that I read the news. There could be the germ of a new idea in the stores from around the world. What could we do with a chimp that knocked down a drone?

Checking for new markets for short stories is another diversion. However, that usually leads to submitting short stories, which is really productive time. A bonus! Diverting yet productive.

My favorite way to waste time is research. What was the name of a bank in Junction City, Kansas in 1867? What metallic cartridge pistols were available after the Civil War? Can a Colt peacemaker actually shoot through a six inch think hunk of pine?

Sometimes the research can lead into different tangled little forests. I have a character for one short story that needs… Well never mind that. I needed the name of a new Martial art for the story, something exotic and off the beaten track. I didn’t want Judo, Karate, or Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

I asked google and it gave me over a million sites. Some were about exotic weapons. One site listed fictional martial arts. I just had to look at that one. However, in the end, I decided that Munchkin Fu wouldn’t do although it tempted me.

What real ones did I find? Pencak Silat, Escrima, Kuialua, Capoeira, Krav Maga, and Sambo. Yes, Sambo is a martial art. It comes from Russia.

While doing this research I looked into Military based forms of unarmed combat. Did you realize that a soldier spends less time on unarmed combat than the average civilian student of a martial art?

Consider for a moment the American Marine Corp Martial Arts program. To reach a black belt in this program requires 150 hours of instruction. At three classes a week that’s roughly a year. Compare that to Karate where you’ll need about three years to earn a black belt.

Did I mention all the YouTube bits available on the martial arts? I found demonstrations, promotions for DVD training courses, UFC fights, world championships in various skills and lots of clips from movies. If you have a few hours to spare look up a show called Fight Quest on YouTube.

Personally I’m thinking about taking Tai Chi again.


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Blame it on the Pizza


I blame the pizza.

Now that’s not to say that the pizza was bad. I found it very tasty, with peperoni, sausage, and bacon on it. I can’t blame anyone but myself for eating it. Tony and Guido didn’t come to my house with a pizza and a pistol to force me.

Let me go back to the beginning. My new year’s resolution was to lose thirty-one pounds by sensible dieting and exercise. Until this week I was working on this goal by losing five to six pounds a month. Each week I’d usually lose a little more than a pound. I have the records to prove it.

During my trip to Cuba, I managed to keep this up. Walking through Havana, the heat and the lack of chocolate helped. During my cold when I couldn’t workout, I managed it because I wasn’t hungry. Have you noticed that when you have a cold and a stuffed nose, you can’t taste anything?

Then I ate the pizza. Actually I didn’t eat the entire pizza, only a third of it. Three slices from a large one. (There are two and a half pieces still in the freezer, calling to me, waiting for me.) Now that’s a bit piggy, but not that bad. I looked it up. It’s about 300 calories per slice so that was 900 calories in total.

The next morning I weighed myself. Overnight I had gained 2.5 pounds. Overnight! That’s more than the pizza weighed. Oh well, water retention. I’ll lose it again.

It’s a week later, and I haven’t lost those 2.5 pounds. My entire diet is in ruins. Three weeks of dieting all lost for one night’s indulgence.

But it was good pizza.

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All the connections

Have Gun

On the weekend I was watching an episode of “Have Gun Will Travel”, specifically Season 2 Episode 34 – Comanche. This was a half hour western television series from the 1950’s. If you want to watch it, go to YouTube where you can find all the episodes.

I’m not certain if watching a fifty year old television series says more about me or the current state of television. Stop laughing.

Now the main character on “Have Gun Will Travel” is a soldier of fortune named Paladin, who lives in San Francisco, and works all over the American west. His character is portrayed as a well-read, well-educated man, with a taste for the theatre. Usually he quotes some piece of writing during the show.

Sometimes I know the quote. However in this episode I didn’t. It ran as follows:

And when he fell in whirlwind, he went down

As when a lordly cedar, green with boughs,

Goes down with a great shout upon the hills,

And leaves a lonesome place against the sky.

Catchy isn’t it? I had to look it up. It turns out this is the last lines from a poem “Lincoln, Man of the People” by Edwin Markham who was the subject of one of my blogs earlier. I have a particular liking for another of his poems, ‘The Man with a Hoe’. I found the connection fascinating.

I decided to look up the writers for this series. There were 225 episodes, 24 written by Gene Roddenberry. Other contributors included Bruce Geller, Harry Julian Fink, Don Brinkley and Irving Wallace. This particular episode was one of three that was written by Irving Wallace. He is better known for his novels and the movies they inspired.

It’s get stranger. During WWII, Wallace served in the Frank Capra unit in Fort Fox along with Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss). So there’s only one degree of separation between Dr. Seuss and Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame.

Want some other connections? Movies from Wallace’s novels starred everyone from Paul Newman to Tom Selleck, to Jane Fonda, to Cloris Leachman. And this is another connection to me, because Tom Selleck started in ‘Three Men and a baby’ a picture I worked on as a movie extra.

For writers, the connections are many, complex and not always obvious at first sight.

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Watch the Price of Almonds


The connections throughout the world have never been greater. What happens half a world away has an impact on your life.

The April snow pack in the mountains of California is only five percent of the average, and this is the fourth year of below average snow pack. California is in the midst of one of its worst droughts in its history.

How bad is it? The governor has ordered California’s first-ever mandatory water cutback, imposing a 25 percent reduction to force residents and businesses to significantly tighten up water use. This will affect golf courses and cities in a substantial way if this goal is to be achieved. Those green lawns might be a thing of the past.

California gets half of its fresh water from the melting snow pack in the mountains. No snowpack, no water. So how does this affect you? California produces roughly half of all the fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States while exporting vast amounts to China and other overseas customers.

This agriculture consumes a staggering 80 percent of California’s developed water, even as it accounts for only 2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Most crops and livestock are produced in the Central Valley, which is, geologically speaking, a desert. The soil is very fertile but crops there can thrive only if massive amounts of irrigation water are applied.

Take almonds. The United States produces 80% of the world’s production, all in California. Last year’s drought decreased production from 1.41 million tonnes to .73 million tonnes. That was a 50% decline. That’s why the price of almonds is at a nine year high, with the sky as the limit. Last year, California had five times more snowpack.

Other crops might be affected, like rice and pistachios. The United States is the world’s second largest producer of pistachios, after Iran.

Some rice farmers in Northern California are skipping planting their crop this year and choosing instead to sell their water rights to Southern California.

All of this is spurring a drilling frenzy, not for fracking but for water. They drill deep for water today, between one and two thousand feet. Such a well can cost $300,000.

Pumping this additional water out of the ground comes with its own problems. Normally groundwater accounts for 40% of the water supply, and 60% during a drought. However the dropping water table indicates they can’t pump forever. As the water is pumped out, the ground settles. In some places in the Central Valley, land has dropped by a foot. This has damaged roads, pipes, and other infrastructure and has caused some canals to stop working.

As California farms and cities drill deeper for groundwater, they no longer are tapping reserves that percolated into the soil over recent centuries. They are pumping water that fell to Earth during a much wetter climatic regime—the ice age.

So, if you like Californian wines, almonds, tomatoes, and other food, you might consider praying for an end to the drought. Me? I’m going to buy a few bags of almonds and stick them in the freezer.



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The Most Important Sentence


The most important sentence in any story or novel is the first one. That’s not to say a weak first sentence has always doomed a novel to ignominy. However, we live in a fast paced world where there are a thousand competitors for every minute of leisure time we have.

Should we watch TV? Go to Net Flicks for a movie? Play an online video game. Get out the Wii or the game boy? Check Facebook? Or read a story? If that story doesn’t gain the reader’s attention in the first bit, it will be tossed aside.

So what makes a great opening? It’s like the joke that ends, ‘But I know it when I see it.’ Elmore Leonard had a knack for openings. Take this one:

The war began the first Saturday in June 1931, when Mr. Baylor sent a boy up to Son Martin’s place to tell him they were coming to raid his still.

It’s one sentence, but in those few words, the author establishes the time and location of the story (June 1931 at Son Martin’s place) introduces the protagonist and the antagonist, sets the hook and raises questions in the readers’ minds. Why did Mr. Baylor send a boy up to tell Martin about the raid on his still? Why did that start the war?

Let’s look at another:

One day Karen DiCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca.

In this example Leonard establishes the relationship between Karen diCilia, Frank, and the real estate woman. In other words he has introduced the protagonist, the antagonist, and the conflict. With conflict comes drama, and the fundamental question all writers want in the readers’ minds. “What happens next?”

Now one of my problems as a writer is that I like a slow start to a story. I want to set the stage so to speak. I want to show the protagonist in his/her happy place before the inciting incident burns everything to the ground. So I write it that way. Then I try to cut everything out that slows the start. I don’t always succeed.

There are more rules about what is wrong in an opening that what is right. I’ll try both. A story opening should contain the following:

  1. The setting – time and place of the story,
  2. The protagonist, and the antagonist,
  3. The source of the conflict,
  4. Indication of genre,
  5. Something original and memorable.

Consider this example:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

It is memorable, possibly unique. It does introduce the protagonist. You see, putting all the stuff I listed into a single sentence is well-nigh impossible, so each writer weighs the combinations.

There are some rules about what shouldn’t be in the opening. They include:

  1. The weather.
  2. Nothing but description.

I know. I understand weather. Unless the weather is crucial to the story, almost a character in the story, this is a waste of words. The same with description. While we want the setting, we also want something to happen. In the three examples I’ve given something has happened. Dialogue. I’m personally not convinced about this one, but I understand that when you start with a line of dialogue you usually end up with a conversation rather than action.

Have said all of this, it’s the exceptions that make writers grind their teeth. Consider this opening for a novel that is included as one of the one hundred best opening lines:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

This is why so many authors end up drinking. You get to the point where you think you know the rules and someone (in this case Samuel Beckett) changes the rules.

To see some of my short stories go to

Short Story Components

What is a short story? Seriously. If you want to laugh, look in the dictionary where they define it as “a fictional work of prose that is shorter in length than a novel.” Now that’s as useful as a trap door on a lifeboat.

When I started to write short stories, I had to discover a host of things that narrows the definition further.

Edgar Alan Poe defined a short story as one a person could read at a single sitting. I think that’s still a pretty good definition, especially in this age of eBooks and commuting. Whether the reader is on the tread mill, or the commuter train this definition has at least some connection to the his/her reality.

For length, I think the best short story definition is the one that comes from the market place. In general, a story under a thousand words is call flash fiction. At the other end, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula awards define the novelette as having a word count of between 7,500 and 17,499, inclusive. So the top end for a short story (Stephen King excepted) is about 7500 words. However, there’s a sweet spot, depending on genre.

For YA fiction, the maximum length is about 2000 words. For crime, and horror short stories the sweet spot is between four and five thousand words. Why? Readers of these genres want a more complex plot.

Let’s start with 2500 words as the ideal length for a short story. Now what does that allow an author to write?

You can break a short story down into scenes. A scene is a part of the story with one setting and one time frame. Whenever you write ‘The next day’, or ‘at the saloon’ you have created a transition from one scene to another. You can have any number of scenes in your story, but there are some constraints. If your scenes are too short your story becomes choppy. If they are too long, the pace slows. Aim for around three paragraphs, or three to five hundred words per scene.

So the story is 2500 words in length with scenes of three to five hundred words, which gives you about five to eight scenes to tell your story. This is the point where a writer can feel the brevity of the short story. You don’t have much to work with.

Now a story plot needs an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. If you are missing any of those elements, your story won’t work. So you have to fit those plot components into your story scenes.

You also need a setting, characters, conflict and a theme.

This is why writing a good short story is so tricky; you have to put the elements in without scrimping, and without running out of space.


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I have an entire folder on my computer filled with story fragments. Every time I start a story and can’t finish it, that folder gets another entry. I’m certain all writers have something like that. With today’s technology it’s easy to keep all those stillborn literary children, hoping that someday in the future they can be brought to life.

Today, I reviewed the pile. Oh, I corrected some typing errors. I added a sentence or two. I thought about how to use the words. The end result was zip, de nada, nothing.

Here’s an example:

“So you want him to confess. What do you want him to confess to?”   

Yep that’s it. I like it. There’s tension in that single line and a hook. Who is talking? What is the answer to the question? What will the outcome be? Yet it remains just a single line.

I’ve had this single line for a decade now, without ever turning it into a story. Part of the reason is that I write other stories. Right now I have three short stories on the go, as well as a novel. I’ll finish those short stories although one keeps trying to turn into a novella.

What’s the difference? It lies in how my mind makes stories. Now some fly by the seat of the pants and some plot out their story. I used to fly until my story ended up with the hero, alone, broke, without any memory, stuck in a park while the police and the bad guys hunted him down. Thirty thousand words and my only solution was to have him fall out of bed and wake up. (No. I didn’t.)

A successful story needs a plot from opening to final conclusion. It also needs an emotional flow to carry the reader along. When I can see the plot and the emotional element then writing the story is a blissful experience. When I can punch out a plot and define the emotional flow, I can hammer out the story. Otherwise I just look at the words and say ‘What’s next?’

Some of these fragments are ideas. Some are descriptions. Some are character sketches. At times I consider pulling a couple of fragments, chop them up and put them in the blender to create a new mash up. That doesn’t solve the problem of the missing components.

So, don’t tell me your great idea for a story, play, screen play, novel or picture book. I have my own idea pile waiting for me to strike the right spark to set one on fire.

To see some of my short stories go to



Cars in Havana


Havana makes watching cars to by an enjoyable diversion again. Yes, there are a host of American cars from the 50’s on the road. You can see a 57 Cadillac convertible. I admit to a bit of nostalgia as a Studebaker drove by.

However, despite what you might have read, these cars are not the only ones on the road. There are only 60,000 of the máquina still on the road in a country eleven million people. The Ladas continue to reign as the most populace vehicle on the island.

What else can you see? I saw Hundai and Kia, Toyota and Mistubishi. Peugots are popular. Then there are Fiat, Citroen, Volkswagon, Renault and others. Frankly, I didn’t recognize some of the manufacturers they have there.

One that I had to track down when I returned is the Geely, which is a Chinese automotive manufacturing company headquartered in Hangzhou, China. The Emgrand is another car from the same maker.

Cuba doesn’t manufacture its own cars. However, I did see a number of Geely with that maker’s emblem replaced with one that was a stylized Cuban Flag. I don’t know. Nationalism? Government contract?

I did ask about the old American cars. I wanted to know what they did for gasoline, since the vehicles of the 50’s used leaded gas. Really. At one point they put lead in gasoline as an anti-knock additive.

I was told that many of the old American cars have had their engines replaced with diesels. The price of diesel is much lower than gasoline, and the new diesel engines are much more efficient. Those old cars used to get ten miles to the gallon, or less.

The máquina will continue on the roads of Cuba, especially Havana for a few reasons. To begin with any automobile is expensive in Cuba, in part because of the import duty on new cars which runs close to 100%. A car costs almost as much as a house. Therefore having a working car is a perfect example of conspicuous consumption. On Sundays, taking a spin in the family car is a favorite afternoon recreation. The roads are just as crowded on Sunday as they are during the week in Havana.

Finally, those brightly painted and polished old American cars are used for taxis and tours. The Cubans know that tourists are fascinated by the old cars, and the Cubans know how to turn a pretty car into a tourist trimmer.

Still Cubans hope that the American embargo is rescinded. They would like to be able to order parts for these old cars from Miami. Today, they need a relative, who will carry the part. Even direct flights would be an improvement.

So why do travel writers always remark on the máquina? Well like all writers, they try to identify the unique element of the environment to catch the readers’ attention. Nowhere else in the world do people drive American cars made in the 1950’s.



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Back from Cuba


I took a week’s holidays in Havana, Cuba recently. That’s perfectly legal for a Canadian citizen. So I thought I would share some of my impressions.

Havana remains a work in progress, a beautiful lady in rags. As the hop-on/hop-off bus rode through the streets I was once more shocked by the number of buildings in dire need of repairs. However, on the second day I was struck by the number of buildings that were being repaired.

The most obvious was the work on el Capitolio, or National Capitol Building. This was the seat of government from 1929 until 1959. If it looks familiar it was modeled on the U.S. Capital building. The outside of one wing has been completely restored, and the work proceeds on the other wing and cupola. However, everywhere you turn you’ll see construction.

Traditionally construction in Cuba has been limited by materials. Maybe that has changed. I know that I saw skids of concrete and cement mix arriving at one site. I wandered into a ferreteria (hardware store) to see stacks of paint cans for sale. A few years ago the only ones who could get paint were government projects.

Why is cement and paint so important? Most buildings in Cuba are built with concrete and cement. The results don’t rot, don’t get moldy and don’t blow apart in a hurricane. In a high humidity, warm climate, such buildings will discolor over time. However, with cement to make repairs and a coat of paint the building can suddenly look new.

A lot do look refreshed. Part of this is the relentless drive to start a business. All the young people, at least the ones I met, want to start their own business. Right now the craze is to open a paladar which is a restaurant run by ‘self-employers’. They have popped up in any doorway, in houses, and in garages.

The word paladar came from a Brazilian soap opera ‘Vale Tudo’, shown in Cuba in the early 1990s. Paladar (Portuguese and Spanish for “palate”) was the name of the chain of restaurants run by the protagonist in the show.

Another sign of changes are the explosion in rooms/apartments/houses for rent by private persons. These ‘’ are guesthouses where Cubans can rent out a few of their rooms to guests. I wouldn’t be surprised if bed and breakfast accommodations appear next.

One fellow insisted that the future opportunity lay in creating and joining co-operatives, especially ones related to electronics and communications.

Still, elements of the old Cuba remain. Doctors still drive cabs in the evening for extra money. One of our waitresses had a master’s degree in economics. Her mother was a doctor, working in Brazil. Another couple we met was taking free evening courses to learn more English.

Lost in Havana, I stopped a total stranger in the street and, using my fractured Spanish, asked for directions. She didn’t just explain. She went out of her way to lead us to our destination. Another time a Cuban gentleman stopped and asked me if I was lost. I wasn’t but he just wanted to be certain.

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Turning The Moon is a Harsh Mistress into Uprising

They plan to make Robert A. Heinlein’s Book, ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ into a movie. They have a producer (Bryan Singer) and a screen writer (Marc Guggenheim) in place as of a few days ago. This isn’t the first attempt. In 2004 a screenwriter Tim Minear started a screenplay based on the novel. It was shopped around but never got off the ground.

If you haven’t read the novel, I would recommend it. It’s written in an easy style. It has enough action to keep a reader interested. The characters, while one dimensional, are interesting. It also has just a touch of sin, and paints an interesting picture of lunar colonies.

Heinlein wrote the novel in 1965, and it was first serialized in the ‘Worlds of If’ science fiction magazine. That’s where I first read it. It has a computer (not a robot) that talked, and became sentient. It had revolutionaries, and a completely new culture set on Luna.

I’ve written several stories about the moon, in part inspired by Heinlein’s attention to detail; ‘Crash’, ‘Nothing but Vacuum’, ‘No place for a Cripple’, and a few that have not yet sold.

To libertarians this book is one of the ten best in the twentieth century. Milton Friedman praised the novel as a “wonderful” book. Another element of the novel is the line marriage structure Heinlein describes in the novel. In 1966 we hadn’t heard of polyamory. There’s also the key issue that is driving the revolution, and his stark position that you can’t cheat natural laws, just because you want to. That makes Heinlein an early conservationist.

So there’s a lot in the book. Well it’s 115,000 words. So how do they plan to turn that into a 2 hour screen play of 120 pages? Obviously, they plan to cut something, but what?

Here are some hints. They plan to title the movie ‘Uprising’. Marc Guggenheim’s previous screen plays were ‘Green Lantern’ and ‘Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters’. (Before that he wrote comics – ‘Spiderman’ and ‘The Flash’. ) Bryan Singer has some excellent credits. He directed ‘The Usual Suspects’ as well the ‘X-men’ movies. So from this meager information I will predict that movie will concentrate on the revolution, and probably drop all stuff that made the book so controversial.

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Leonard Nimoy and me

I just learned that Leonard Nimoy has died. I only met him for a day but I remember it, even though it was almost thirty years ago. Let me tell you about it.

I was doing some movie extra work at the time Now a movie extra is a human being who is part of a movie or television show but has no lines. They are a human set prop and so insignificant they don’t even get named in the credits. Think about that for a second.

The placement and control of movie extras is the domain of the second or third assistant director. They tell you where to stand, how to look. They might send you to costume to become a person at the party, an office worker, or a camel driver, depending on the needs of the day. When they don’t want you on set they put you in the bullpen so you don’t wander off.

On the set of Three Men and a Baby, everybody knew the names of the stars. Tom Selleck, Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg had created quite a buzz in Toronto, and every starlet in the city wanted on that set. Coline Serreau, who wrote and directed the original French version, was set to direct this remake but dropped out after casting the three male leads.

Leonard Nimoy took over. Now he’d done a few TV shows and a couple of Star Trek Movies, but a screwball comedy with a baby, a girl, and three guys?

I remember we filmed at least three different scenes that day, which is productive for a movie. The first one included a live camel. After that, we broke for lunch. The production company fed us onsite; talent, grips, and the rest of the crew. We extras were lined up waiting to be fed, last. Leonard walked to the end of the line and stood behind the extras. Imagine the President of the U.S. standing in line with the waiters to get into a white house dinner.

The manager of the craft services found Nimoy, explained they had a special table for him, and started to lead him past us. Leonard went, but he apologized to us as he passed and shook hands with us. That’s how I shook Leonard Nimoy’s hand.

After lunch we were filming a scene that later ended on the cutting room floor. The ‘Third’ showed me my where to stand, handed me some papers and told me to point things out from them to another extra. Steve Gutenberg came on set and shook all the women’s hands. Ted Danson arrived a bit later and, as I remember it, he kept to himself.

Thirty extras, two principles, grips moved lights as the camera man kept making adjustments. The sound editor complained and adjusted the microphones. An electrician lay extension cords. Absolute chaos. In the midst of all of this Leonard Nimoy sat on a canvas seated chair, his legs crossed and his hands in front of him making a steeple. His eyes were closed, as if meditating. Every so often, he would ask, “Are you ready?” and then return to his meditation.

When the chaos cleared, he gave his instructions to Gutenberg and Danson in a voice so low I couldn’t hear him and I wasn’t that far away. He resumed his seat and called out “Action” in a voice barely louder than conversational, as calm as Spock.

I’ve been on other sets where the director roared his instructions. I’ve heard one curse out a sound technician in language that would make a sailor blush. I’ve seen them react with anger or annoyance when a shot was ruined by some gaff. Not Leonard Nimoy.

Not having read his biography, I didn’t know at that time how Spock had affected Nimoy. I only knew I saw a director who had that calmness in the midst of chaos. I saw him work with Danson, and they shot a three second snippet about fifty different ways in a couple of minutes. I saw a gentleman in the finest sense of the word, who taught me more about managing a team in that afternoon that all the books on motivating people I had read.

Leonard, the world is a poorer place without you.

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The Mother of a Nation that had no Children

In 1925, a French Army team opened a tomb in the Ahaggar Massif, in the land of the Tuaraeg people. What they found was the skeleton of a woman, with seven silver bracelets on her right arm and seven golden ones on her left arm.

A later examination of the body showed that the woman had probably be lame because of a deformation of her Lumbar and sacral areas.

Radio Carbon Dating show the tomb was constructed in the second half of the fifth century. After resting in the remote fastness of the Sahara for fifteen hundred years, French archeologists had broken into the tomb of Tin Hanin, and found it undisturbed. They had found the woman of legend.

This was the woman who united the Tuareg world and founded a kingdom in the Ahaggar Mountains. Even today in the oasis city of Tamanrasset, they celebrate her festival. The name Tin Hanin means literally “She of the Tents” literally. She was the mother of a nation. Yet she began with so little. She came from the Talfilalt oasis in the Atlas Mountains of what is today Morocco, with only one servant.

Last and most strangely, the physical examination of the skeleton within the grave revealed that the mother of a nation had never born a child.

The Tuareg are a Berber people, not Arabs. They are sometimes referred to as “People of the Veil” and “the Blue People”. The indigo color of their veils and other clothing sometimes stains the skin underneath. Among this race, the men, not the women, wear a veil. The difference doesn’t stop there, for the women can choose their husbands, and divorce them as well.

Today, about 1.2 million Tuaregs live within the countries of Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso. Their nomadic lifestyle doesn’t work well with modern nation states, and the decline of the caravan trade.


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Walk or Die


“Psst buddy,” the voice said, “Start walking or die.” That voice might not come from a street punk but from your family doctor.

In the United States, Veterans Affairs studied more than fifteen thousand men to see if there was a link between cardio capacity and death. In a nutshell there was. The better the cardio capacity, the lower the chance of death.

The leader of the study, Professor Kokkinos and his associates tested more than six thousand African-American men and almost nine thousand Caucasian men for a period between May 1983 and December 2006. The subjects were put on a treadmill and encouraged to walk until tired or showing symptoms of distress. The subjects were followed for the next 7.5 years and death rates were tracked.

The study grouped subjects into four categories from “low fit” to “very highly fit” depending on their cardiac capacity. Men in the “very highly fit” category were seventy percent less likely to die.

Why does walking/jogging/cycling help? Regular cardio exercise will lower your weight, improve your blood pressure, reduce your stress, and more. The heart is like any other muscle. Training it will improve its capacity do to work, to pump blood around your body. One of the places that the blood goes is back to the heart.

As you train the heart, it adapts. Within your heart are coronary collaterals, tiny blood vessels that are no thicker than a fine hair. Normally they carry little or no blood. However, if the coronary arteries start to narrow the collaterals respond by gradually increasing in size and number. This process is called collateralization. In effect the heart grows new coronary artery branches to move blood around a narrowed segment. It’s a natural bypass, one without the zipper scar down the front of your chest.

Animal studies have shown that regular exercise is a great stimulus to collateralization. Furthermore, this collateralization has been shown to improve survival after an experimentally induced heart attack (in animals). (If they start human induce heart attacks, I have a long list of people I would like to volunteer.)

What Exercises help?

Anything that gets you up and moving will help the heart. This includes walking, jogging, bike riding. Given the human form, exercise that uses the legs or the entire body will tend to improve cardiac health faster than those that put a premium on the upper body, such as swimming, or rowing.

Bored with walking? Try dancing, golf (without the cart) or tennis. If you have never tried square dancing, you’ll find it works for both the mind and the body as you try to remember all those calls while moving at a brisk pace.

How much?

They used to suggest five days at 50 minutes per day. However, the latest research suggests that the sweet spot is less effort than that.

Longer, less frequent sessions of aerobic exercise have no clear advantage over shorter, more frequent sessions of activity. Any type of aerobic activity contributes to cardiovascular fitness. In fact, even divided “doses” of activity — such as three 10-minute walks spread throughout the day — offer aerobic benefits. What’s most important is making regular physical activity part of your lifestyle.

In the Copenhagen City Heart study, researchers identified and tracked 1,098 healthy joggers and 413 healthy (but sedentary) non-joggers over a span of 12 years. Logged hours of jogging, frequency, and the participant’s perception of pace were all record.

The findings were surprising, if not a little worrisome. Fast-paced runners and people who jog strenuously and frequently were just as likely to die as those who didn’t jog at all. The optimal frequency of jogging was no more than three times (about 150 minutes) per week.

So aim for about 150 minutes a week. Ten minutes after ever meal will get you there with ease, and let you take the weekend off.

Optimum Training range

For best results you want to walk fast enough to get your heart’s attention and slowly enough that you don’t run out of breath. Walk fast enough to break out a sweat, but not so fast that you can’t talk.

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Biking in Fort Lauderdale


I’m not crazy about Fort Lauderdale, but I find it fine for riding around on a bicycle. To begin with it is as flat as a pancake, no, flatter. The closest things to a hill are the bridges that cross the New River. The Interstate highways don’t cut the city into pieces. US. 1 is tame within the city.

Many local businesses and facilities have bike racks. This includes the Main Library, Publix, MacDonald’s Hardware, the Bally Matrix Health Club, and even the local Sunrise Cinema. Strangely the U.S. Post office didn’t. When I mentioned this absence to the employees, they gave me that look normally reserved for the pitifully stupid.

With a bike, I could explore the RiverWalk that runs through the center of Fort Lauderdale. The RiverWalk is an area along the New River that has been set aside for parks and historical buildings. It begins at the historic Stranahan House and winds along the river to the Broward Center for the Performing arts. In between you can find restaurants, museums, and cultural events. This can include Jazz on a Sunday afternoon, movies in the park after dark.

When on my bike, I could stop to admire a building or investigate and event without blocking traffic. I never had to search for parking even on the trendiest parts of East Las Olas Blvd. Even the beach was in reach by bike.

There are a number of bike lanes in Fort Lauderdale’s center core where I was riding. At other times I found the sidewalks more convenient. Fortunately in most places the sidewalk is modified for bikes and wheelchairs at most intersections. Since almost no one walks in this city, you can ride the sidewalk without a care.

That doesn’t mean the sidewalks are ideal for riding. The city officials have decided that the sidewalks are the ideal place for posts, fire hydrants, and other obstacles. Along U.S. 1, you will find posts to support the traffic lights. These posts are about eighteen inches in diameter and smack in the middle of the sidewalk giving you about a foot on either side. It must be a fearful city for the blind to walk.

On the whole, despite the warnings from the natives, I have found the drivers patient and forgiving. None have intentionally tried to run me off the road, or else they were extremely inept at it. The traffic in the downtown core isn’t bad, except for the peak of rush hour, which lasts less than an hour.

Public transit in Fort Lauderdale is also bike friendly. All the city buses are fitted with a bike carrier in the front. With the cost of a bus ride only one dollar, you can use them to stretch your travel distance.

If you consider a thirty-minute bike ride acceptable, most of the city is within your reach. You can ride from downtown Fort Lauderdale to the beach in about that time.

For a bicyclist, Fort Lauderdale is surprisingly accessible for an American city.


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As Movies Fade to Black

I watched the Academy Awards on Sunday evening for the first time in about fifteen years. It’s not that I didn’t want to see the Oscars, but that time and circumstance defeated me. In the world of cable I remain during my sailing time, a solitary standout. No television. Strangely, while Americans have parties for the Super bowl, they don’t even turn the television to the Oscars.

So I watched the entire thing from the red carpet to the last gasp thirty minutes later than predicted. Sad in some ways to see the faces on the red carpet. There’s no special lenses to hide the passage of time (Except for Nicole Kidman who appears to have gotten younger.) Then the ‘In Memoriam’. I knew more of the people in that segment than among the announcers. See what happens when you don’t pay attention for a decade.

The musical numbers have always been a big part of the show. It’s some real entertainment. However, none of the numbers moved me, with one exception. Lady Gaga nailed those songs from ‘The Sound of Music’, and demonstrated a well-trained, strong voice. In an age of lip-syncing, and pitch corrected recordings, this amazed me. Lady Gaga, who has been known for her shock tactics took the high road.

The dresses were lovely; the red carpet statements were banal. The speeches were a little better, but had nothing that will be played again and again. Remember Jack Palance and his one armed pushups at the age of seventy-three? No? Look it up on YouTube.

Overall, it struck me as nostalgic, old fashioned, and bit sad. While they celebrate, their ship has sailed and the future is pushing them onto the slag heap of history.

International video game revenue is estimated to be $81.5B in 2014. This is more than double the revenue of the international film industry in 2013. Video game growth in some segments is running 20% per annum.

No, movies won’t disappear in the next year. Movies are passive. Go to the theatre and sit. They are great for a date. However, ticket sales (not dollar sales) for 2014 were 1.27 billion, down from a high 1.58 billion in 2002. All the increase in dollars came from increased ticket prices. IMAX and 3D pictures have driven this trend.

Personally, and this is from a man whose favorite movie is in black-and-white with mono sound, I’m not sold on the new technology. I’m still adjusting to HD television and not always happy with the result. How many explosions can a single movie contain before it becomes boring?

Oh heck. I’m sounding like an old fart. It must be time for me to buy a new console and hook it to the television; maybe one of those body motion detectors. Then I could consider video games as a cardio workout. Maybe next year I’ll watch the Video Game Awards Show.

And Nobody Noticed

US Poet Laureate Philip Levine

This is an angry blog today. Why am I angry? I’m angry at the strange silly balance in our modern culture that raises some to exalted levels who have no talent and commits to obscurity the great voices of our age.

What if I told you that on February 14th of this year a man died? This man had been appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. His awards include the following:

  • Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award,
  • Pulitzer Prize for Poetry,
  • National Book Award for Poetry,
  • Los Angeles Times Book Prize,
  • Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine,
  • Guggenheim Foundation fellowship,
  • National Book Award for Poetry,
  • National Book Critics Circle Award,
  • Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize from Poetry,
  • Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets,
  • American Academy of Arts and Letters Award,
  • Frank O’Hara Prize.

However, his passing was too insignificant for the likes of Fox News, and CNN.

Philip Levine started working in the Detroit car factories at the age of fourteen. He didn’t stay there. He finished high school and went to University for a Bachelor of Arts which he completed in 1950. Then back to the ‘Stupid’ jobs for Chevrolet and Cadillac.

He wrote poetry about working in a Detroit auto factory.

Maybe in a century or two, when the world has forgotten Leslie Gore, and E.L. James, it will remember Philip Levine, and his portraits of working class Americans will be enjoyed.

Library of Congress

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The Day of the Jellyfish


Let’s be honest. We all like a good story about the destruction of the world. Now some are too silly. I’m thinking of ‘The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ and some are too depressing, like ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy, but there are loads of ones in between that are in the Goldilocks zone.

Remember John Wyndham? He hit the ball out of the park with ‘The Day of the Triffids’, ‘The Kraken Wakes’ (published in the US as ‘Out of the Deeps’) and ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’. If you read any of his stuff in school, they probably foisted one of his weaker books on you which was called ‘The Chrysalids’ (published in the US as Re-Birth).

G. Ballard destroyed the world in countless ways. So did John Christopher. For some reason the British Science Fiction authors of the fifties and sixties loved to destroy the world, with special attention to England. I guess it must have appealed to their readers.

Now a story, a real news story caught my eye, and I can’t decide if it would make a good ‘end of the world story’ or just a silly one. Jellyfish are taking over the oceans and it may be too late to stop them. Yes, jellyfish, which have no brain and are 95% water, are the next great crisis.

It turns out this isn’t a laughing matter. (Stop giggling.) The little buggers aren’t all that small. For example the Nomura jellyfish can grow to be the size of large refrigerator. In 2009 a Japanese fishing trawler capsized. Too many jelly fish in its net.

An explosive breeding of jellyfish is called a bloom. In 2000, a bloom of sea tomato jellyfish in Australia was so enormous — it stretched for more than 1,000 miles from north to south — that it was even visible from space. Let me repeat that – visible from space.

The pesky problems have clogged the water intake on Nuclear reactors on four different continents. In Northern Ireland they killed a hundred thousand farmed salmon. In the Black Sea they wiped out the fishing.

It might not be as scary as a Great White Shark, but I’ve been stung by a jelly fish and it hurts. At least it wasn’t a boxy jellyfish. This charming species which is also known at the sea wasp is widely regarded as one of the most deadly creatures on earth. They have been responsible for at least 5,568 deaths recorded since 1954.

Who feels like writing the novel? (All I want is acknowledgment for suggesting the idea.)

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The Valentine’s Day Conspiracy


As a child at Our Lady of Lourdes, the nuns taught us that St. Valentine was a martyr during the early days of the church. The emperor, Claudius the Cruel had forbidden marriages, believing that single men made better soldiers, but Valentinus, a priest, continued to secretly perform marriages. After he was jailed, Valentinus he restored sight to the blind daughter of his jailer, who wrote him a letter of thanks that became the first Valentine.

It was a great story, but a complete crock of doo doo.

To begin, there were three different martyrs name Valentinus in the early days of the church. We know little about any of them, and they had nothing to do with the exchange of love letters.

So how and when did this expensive annual habit actually begin? Blame Chaucer. He wrote a  poem in 1382 to honor the first anniversary of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia’s engagement. In the poem he mentions that birds mated on St. Valentine’s feast day which was February 14. Did Chaucer make this up? We can’t tell for certain.

The poem that started it all.

In fourteenth century in France, during the age of courtly love, this caught on like wild fire. Three other notable authors (Otton de Grandson, John Gower, and Pardo from Valencia) made similar references and it took off faster than Fifty Shades of Gray. Letters and confections became the rage on this day. Wooers gave a charm in the shape of a key as a romantic symbol and an invitation to unlock the giver’s heart. Such charms were also given to children to ward off St Valentine’s Malady. He’s the patron saint of epilepsy. (He is also the patron of beekeepers (along with St. Ambrose) although I’m not sure if that is connected.)

The connection between love letters and February 14th continued in France and England through to the present. In Hamlet you’ll find a mention of the feast so it was familiar to Shakespeare and his audience in Elizabethan England. With the creation of a postal system and the printing of mass produced cards in the 1840’s in the United States, the day became part of our modern celebrations.

Alas, February 14th is no longer the feast day of St. Valentine. In 1969 the Catholic Church revised its Calendar of Saints. Saints Cyril and Methodius now claim that day.


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Reading, oh Me!


If you root around on the internet you’ll find more than a few articles that decry the modern educational system and explain that today’s illiteracy is caused by abandoning the phonics method of teaching English.

Now I find these attacks interesting and humorous for a couple of reasons. When I was learning to read, my parents thought that phonics was the source of all the reading problems. They were old school. You memorized spelling, and then you knew the world. If you didn’t know a word, you used a dictionary.

Those attacking modern education like to quote a book named “Why Johnny Can’t Read” published in 1955 by Rudolph Flesch. Yes, a sixty-year-old book about reading is still making waves.

Now Rudolph Flesch has a background that proves his intelligence. Flesch was born and raised in Austria. He finished university there, studying law. He would have learned German as his milk tongue, Latin, and Greek in high school. For law, at that time, a student required a proficiency in German, Italian, Spanish, Romanian and English.

Fleeing the imminent Nazi invasion, Flesch fled to the U.S. There he became a graduate student of Columbia University, where he earned a Ph.D in English. (Pretty sharp guy.)

What started me on this topic? I just found this bit today:

Written by Mr. P. Thomas O’Dea of New Haven, Conn.:

When the English tongue we speak,

Why is “break” not rhymed with “freak”?

And the maker of a verse

Cannot cap his “horse” with “worse”?

“Beard” sounds not the same as “heard.”

“Cord” is different from “word.”

“Cow” is cow, but “low” is low.

“Shoe” is never rhymed with “foe.”

Think of “hose” and “dose” and “lose,”

And of “goose” and yet of “choose.”

Think of “comb” and “tomb” and “bomb,”

“Doll” and “roll” and “home” and “some.”

And since “pay” is rhymed with “say,”

Why not “paid” and “said,” I pray?

We have “blood” and “food” and “good.”

“Mould” is not pronounced like “could.”

Wherefore “done,” but “gone” and “lone”?

Is there any reason known?

And, in short, it seems to me,

Sounds and letters disagree.

It was printed in the Ann Landers column on July 19, 1995. However, the clipping is from sixty years earlier. As for Mr. P. Thomas O’Dea of New Haven, I can’t tell you a blessed thing.

However, for anyone wishing to explore phonetics and English there are a wide variety of sites on the Internet. Some have ten, some have forty-seven, and some have a hundred or more rules. You can even find tee shirts with the rules on the front and the back. (Do you know the thirteen rules for Silent letters? I don’t.)

I just warn you that all rules have exceptions.My favorite is one I saw a couple years ago. It goes as follows: “Dew, few, spew, flew, and stew all follow the same rule. If you think you need a lawyer to sew, then you are a phonetic reader.”


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A Taste of Honey

honeyDo you remember the taste of honey? Do you remember bread and butter, with honey sandwiches? The combination of the rich butter and the sweet taste of honey remains in my memory after all the decades since I last tasted one.

When I was young, honey was a treat, while sugar was a staple. The honey would come in a wooden box, with a honeycomb in it. I could skim the covers off the combs and drain the honey on the sandwich, or hack out honey and comb and spread the mixture on the bread.

Sometime I’d eat the honeycomb by itself. That would eventually result in a wad of wax that I could chew like gum.

The historical writer can relax on the subject of honey. Cavemen in Ancient Spain collected honey at least eight thousand years ago. The ancient Egyptians used it to sweeten cakes. Honey collecting began before records in both China, and the New World.

Wherever bees made honey, men would steal it and eat it.

Some interesting facts about honey. It never goes bad. I’m willing to bet you keep your honey in the refrigerator, although that isn’t necessary.

Because of its high fructose content, honey has more sweet flavor than other sweeteners. No two honeys taste exactly the same. Honey is a natural humectant and acts as an anti-irritant. Honey wine is called mead. Honey is a natural moisturizer.

A Sumerian tablet writing, dating back to 2100-2000 BC, mentions honey’s use as a drug and an ointment. Today honey can be used for hard-to-heal wounds, such as diabetic leg ulcers, even wounds with gangrene.

How? If poured on a wound, honey will seal it from outside contaminants. It has a low water content and acidic nature which both combat bacteria. More than that, when honey is diluted with wine or body fluids, enzymes in the honey create a small amount of hydrogen peroxide. Furthermore, honey on a wound reduces pain, and promotes healing.

So, maybe you should include honey in your first aid kit. And I might suggest some bread and butter as well.


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Sugar, a short history


I love sugar. However, that is not the reason for this blog. I read all sorts of stuff, especially when sailing. Almost every marina has a book place, where voyagers can offload books that they no longer want and pick up new reading material. However, you are at the mercy of other peoples’ tastes.

I picked up a Historical Romance set in the 12th century in Great Britain. In one scene the heroine feeds her horse a lump of sugar. Are you laughing? You understand. Are you wondering what the issue is? Read on.

Today, you can pick up a pound of sugar from sugarcane in the grocery store for less than a bottle of beer. That shows how greatly the world has changed.

Sugar, as we think of it today, is the product of either sugarcane, or the sugar beet. We can ignore the sugar beet for most of history. Why? The 16th-century scientist, Olivier de Serres, discovered a process for preparing sugar syrup from the common red beet. However, since crystallized cane sugar was available and tasted better, beet sugar never caught on. The commercial manufacture of sugar from beets didn’t take hold until the early 1800’s when the British blockaded the French ruled continent. The sugar beet has one advantage. You don’t need a tropical climate to grow it. Even with this advantage, beet sugar only accounts for about 12% of all sugar production today.

So, cane sugar is king, and always (aside from the necessities of war) has been.

Guess where the sugarcane plant came from. No, not the new world. Actually, sugarcane was first grown in New Guinea about 6000 BC. The practice spread to India, and the production of crystalline sugar began about 500 BC. Ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts mention sugar. Arab traders brought sugarcane to Mesopotamia by the 10th century AD.

Crusaders brought sugar home to Europe after their campaigns in the Holy Land, where they encountered caravans carrying “sweet salt.” Crusade chronicler William of Tyre, writing in the late 12th century, described sugar as “a most precious product, very necessary for the use and health of mankind.” The first record of sugar in English is in the late 13th century.

So, before the 13th century in England, sugar was unknown, except for returning Crusaders. Imagine a delicacy that had to be imported from the Holy Land. Do you think you would feed it to a horse?

How expensive was sugar? In the fourteenth century, a pound of sugar would cost as much as thirty-six gallons of ale or a couple of sheep.

Now remember this isn’t the same quality of sugar that we buy in the store today. Early refining methods involved grinding or pounding the cane and then boiling down the juice. The result looked like gravel. The Sanskrit word for “sugar” (sharkara) also means “gravel” or “sand.”

Then Columbus discovered America, and sugar production moved to the new world. Approximately 3,000 sugar mills were built before 1550 in the New World. The Spanish had the gold, but Portugal had Brazil and its sugarcane plantations.

The French and the British followed. For the British sugar formed one side of the triangle trade of New World raw materials, along with European manufactured goods, and African slaves. Sugar (often in the form of molasses) was shipped from the Caribbean to Europe or New England, where it was distilled into rum.

France found its sugarcane islands so valuable that it effectively traded its portion of Canada, famously dubbed “a few acres of snow,” to Britain for their return of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia at the end of the Seven Years’ War. (Shush. Don’t tell the Quebeckers.)

Sugar and the European demand for it fueled the plantations. Those needed slaves, so the sweet stuff financed slavery in the Caribbean and South America. New England abolitionists tried to fight sugar from cane with the sugar beet. The “Beet Sugar Society of Philadelphia” was founded in 1836 by those who opposed the slavery on the sugar plantations.

At the same time, sugar began to work its way into every aspect of the cooking of Europe. As the price dropped, sugar changed deserts. It sweetened jams and marmalades. It even sweetened tea.

What we eat and drink today is much different from what people in the actual historical settings had. Sometimes describing an everyday meal can be a trap for the Historical Author.

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Grace Darling


Grace Darling was an English lighthouse keeper’s daughter, famed for participating in the rescue of survivors from the shipwrecked Forfarshire in 1838. In the early hours of 7 September 1838, Darling spotted survivors on Big Harcar, a nearby low rocky island. She and her father William determined that the weather was too rough for the lifeboat to put out from Seahouses (then North Sunderland). They took a rowing boat (a 21 foot, 4-man Northumberland coble) on a long route that kept to the lee side of the islands, a distance of nearly a mile. Darling kept the coble steady in the water while her father helped four men and the lone surviving woman, Mrs. Dawson, into the boat.

Darling became a celebrity. Gifts including fifty pounds from Queen Victoria amounted to seven-hundred pounds. Painters flocked to her island to capture her image. Marriage proposals arrived with every mail.

However, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Grace Darling died of tuberculosis in October 1842, at the age of twenty-six.

And as you might suspect, there’s a poem in the works. The question was should I include the one by Wordsworth or by Swinburne? You read and decide.



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The boy stood on the Burning deck

The Explosion of the Orient by English painter George Arnald

I wrote a blog about parlor poetry a while ago, and thought about revisiting the subject. The poem in question is Casabianca. Don’t know it? Well it was a staple of elementary school readers in the United Kingdom and the United States over a period of about a century spanning, roughly, the 1850s through the 1950s.

More than that. Whether you read Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, or Ian Fleming’s ‘Moonraker’ you’ll find references to it. In film, look for it in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, or ‘The Unit’ and others.

The poem by Felicia Heman, celebrates an event during the Battle of the Nile in 1798 aboard the French ship Orient.

Here is the complete poem.

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.

The flames rolled onhe would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He called aloud‘say, Father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
‘If I may yet be gone!’
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.

Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And looked from that lone post of death
In still yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud,
‘My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound
The boyoh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart.

The young son, Giocante, of Commander Louis de Casabianca remained at his post. His name would have been forgotten, but for this poem.

Whenever you doubt the power of words and poems, just utter the first line of this poem and see who with you knows some more of it.

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Hope for Lost Works of Greek and Roman Times

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79, The scrolls of Herculaneum were blasted by volcanic gas hotter than 300C. The scrolls still exist today, but are essentially ashes that haven’t fallen apart. How Many? The best count that I have found is 1,785. However, there are still 2,800 m² left to be excavated, so there could be more scrolls, many more.

Since their discovery this scrolls have been a source temptation and a source of anguish. What do they contain? We don’t know. To unroll the scroll is to destroy it. The riches trapped in the scrolls have been locked in their condition until most recently.

Using a 3D X-ray imaging technique Scientists this they may be able to read the scrolls without rolling them. Dr Vito Mocella from the National Research Council’s Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM) in Naples, Italy, has identified a handful of Greek letters within a rolled-up scroll for the very first time.

The technique doesn’t actually read the scroll it reads the difference in thickness caused by the dried ink on the papyrus. It reads the thickness of the ink, not the ink itself. It’s difficult because the Papyrus isn’t perfectly flat. Imperfections can disguise vertical and horizontal strokes, so letter with curved lines are easiest to detect.

With over seventeen hundred scrolls it is possible that some lost works of literature may be recovered. There is some speculation that the villa that housed the scrolls was owned by Father-in-law of Julies Caesar. It is believed that the library might have been collected and selected by Piso’s family friend and client, the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara.

I can speculate. Actually, anyone can. If this was Julius Caesar’s Father-in-law, we can hope to find the following works by the famous Roman:

  • Anticatonis Libri II (only fragments survived)
  • Carmina et prolusiones (only fragments survived)
  • De analogia libri II ad M. Tullium Ciceronem
  • De astris liber
  • Dicta collectanea (“collected sayings”, also known by the Greek title άποφθέγματα)
  • Letters (only fragments survived)
  • Iter (only one fragment survived)
  • Laudes Herculis
  • Libri auspiciorum (“books of auspices”, also known as Auguralia)
  • Oedipus
  • possibly some early love poems

By Cicero:

  • Four tragedies in the Greek style: Tiroas, Erigones, Electra, and one other.
  • Hortensius, a dialogue also known as “On Philosophy”.
  • Consolatio, written to soothe his own sadness at the death of his daughter Tullia Ciceronis

By Homer:

  • The Odyssey mentions the blind singer Demodocus performing a poem recounting the otherwise unknown “Quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles”, which might have been an actual work that did not survive.
  • The sequel to the Odyssey?

By Livy:

  • 107 of the 142 books of Ab Urbe Condita, a history of Rome

By Ovid:

  • Medea, of which only two fragments survive.

Then there are the lost works that might, just might show up, but really don’t fit with a Roman library. The lost books of the bible for example, or the lost epistle of Paul.

We just don’t know what the library contains. However, today we have more hope of its recovery than before.

Yes, works can be lost and recovered. The most famous case is the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC).


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Gold for the Danes.

After the Viking victory at the Battle of Maldon in Essex, Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the aldermen of the south-western provinces, advised Æthelred the Unready to buy off the Vikings, to pay them to go away. (Got to love those names.)

In 991 the English made a payment of 3,300 kg of silver. In 994 the Danes returned and laid siege to London. Once more, the English paid Danegeld to make them go away. In 1002 and 1007 more payments. In 1012 the Vikings accepted 17,900 kg of silver to go away, but only after sacking Canterbury and killing its Archbishop. No, it wasn’t Sigeric the Serious who died in 994, but one of his successors.

In 1016, Canute, became the first Danish King of England. The Danegeld failed to keep the Danes away.

This fact of history might have been forgotten, but in 1911, Rudyard Kipling published the following poem. Why then and why this topic? In 1911, Kipling had long been predicting a war with Germany. Ten years earlier he became involved in the debate over the British response to the rise in German naval power known as the Tirpitz Plan to build a fleet to challenge the Royal Navy. He published a series of articles in 1898 which were collected as “A Fleet in Being”.

Perhaps Kipling realized his poetry had a greater impact than his political writings.


Rudyard Kipling


A.D. 980-1016

It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say: —
“We invaded you last night–we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ‘em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: —
“Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say: —

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that pays it is lost!”

 To end this story: President Ronald Reagan read this poem at a meeting of the National Security Planning Group in 1985.


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Alfred and the Cakes

Alfred the Great. Ever heard of him?

Alfred was the King of Wessex (part of today’s England) from 871 to 899. Since he was the youngest of five sons of king Æthelwulf, there was little expectation that he would wear the crown and so he was sent to Rome to stay with Pope Leo IV for three years. He would almost certainly have received the education and tutoring appropriate to his station, but Alfred was never more than semi-literate according to all histories.

Despite the fact that he could not read, Alfred had a prodigious memory. As a child Alfred won a prize of a volume of poetry in Saxon, offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorize it. Later in life he was reputed to be able to memorize complete books that were read to him. (Was he dyslexic?)

Alfred also suffered from a mysterious malady. Alfred’s illness continued, on and off, for twenty years. One of his three older brothers, King Athelbald also died of some similar illness, too, and even Alfred’s grandson, King Edred, suffered from a similar ailment. Modern doctors suggest it could have been Crohn’s disease.

Now at this time, Wessex was under constant attack from Viking raiders. An army of Danes landed in East Anglia with the intent of conquering the four kingdoms that constituted Anglo-Saxon England in 865. They conquered Northumbria and East Anglia. In 870 the Vikings turned their attention to Wessex.

By this point, three of Alfred’s brothers had died, two while wearing the crown. His brother Æthelred wore the crown. Alfred? Bishop Asser applied to Alfred the unique title of “secundarius” making his the recognized successor. As such, Alfred spent the next year in battle, nine engagements. Alfred was about twenty-two years old.

When his brother died, Alfred became king. Alfred probably paid the Danes gold to buy a peace that lasted five years. Then a new leader, Guthrum, led the Danes against Wessex once more. In January 878, the Danes attacked a royal stronghold where Alfred had been staying over Christmas. King Alfred with a little band made his way by the woods into the marshes of Somerset.

Now to the story of the burnt cakes.


Separated in the wilderness from his friends and companions, Alfred stumbled onto the cottage of a cowherd, where he asked for shelter. The man’s wife, a woman known for the sharpness of her tongue, did not recognize the king, but let him enter. As he stood by the fire, trying to warm himself, she told him to watch the barley cakes she was baking while she milked the cows.

However, Alfred soon forgot the cakes, deep in thoughts of his defeat and the defense of his kingdom. When the woman returned, she found the cakes burnt. Incensed she berated him. When he said he had forgotten to watch them she said, “Men! When you saw the cakes burning, why were you too lazy to turn them? For you are glad enough to eat them when they are all hot!”

My father insisted there was a moral to this story which he put roughly this way. Do all things that come to your hand well, no matter what.

After this.

Between 6 and 12 May AD 878, Alfred won the Battle of Edington. He then pursued the Danes to their stronghold at Chippenham and starved them into submission. One of the terms of the surrender was that Guthrum convert to Christianity.

Alfred died on 26 October 899. During the last twenty years of his life, he had to contend with Danish raids. In addition to this he reorganized the military, the tax system, established a navy, revised the legal system and established a court school. Alfred proposed that primary education be taught in English. He also established a program to translate books deemed worthy from Latin to English.


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Holding back the Tide with Words


Recently, during a critique of one of my short stories, the reader asked about something and I had one of those epiphanies. Many of the stories and legends I heard and read about as a child have been lost. Younger readers have never heard the stories about King Canute and the tide, Alfred the Great burning the cakes, or Danegeld.

Why? These are stories of England before the Norman invasion. Certainly not a priority period for American educators, or European History professors. Yet, each story has some lesson of importance to the world.

This is the story of King Canute and the waves as I heard it from my Father.

Now King Canute was the king of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden. He ruled England for nineteen years, and prosperous ones they were for Canute was a leader in a war and a leader in peace. He brought in good laws, and the land was peaceful.

In his court, there was a certain lord who sought to curry the king’s favor with words of praise. Whatever King Canute said, he would stand behind it and would praise the king for his wisdom and his power. One day this lord made his praise more vainglorious than usual.

“Oh King,” The lord began. “Such is the power of your word, that the winds blow at your command and the tides flow as you set them to do.”

King Canute, a man learned in the ways of war and peace, was not impressed. He thought to correct the lord, but struck on a better plan.

The next day the court moved to a new location. At low tide, King Canute led all the courtiers, including the lord of vain words out onto the exposed beach. There, King Canute continued with the king’s business in the normal fashion.

Soon the returning water began reach the court, making more than one person nervous. When a courtier finally mentioned, King Canute stood up and commanded the tide to retreat once more. Then he sat on his throne and continued with the business of the kingdom.

The sea did not retreat. It continued to rise.

Finally, when the water had risen to their knees, the courtiers begged the king to return to land. Looking at the flatterer, King Canute said, “You said I could command the tides.”

“Oh king,” the lord replied. “I was wrong.”

King Canute smiled, and said, “A king may command many things, but he cannot command the winds or the seas, or the seasons. Only God can do that.”

With that the court returned to dry land.

King Canute is a real historic person who ruled England for nineteen years, until November 12, 1035. Look him up.

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What Star Trek TNG got right and got wrong – 3

If mankind has a hobby (or an obsession) it is the war. Thomas Hobbes called the natural state of man as ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’ (war of all against all). Yet in TNG, the world is at peace. Perhaps that’s why the weapons on TNG are so primitive.

What do I mean? Watch any TNG episode. In most you’ll see the phasers (set to stun) drawn. Then there are a couple of minutes of shooting back and forth with visible beams fired by hand or rifle phaser that miss most of the time.

Today, prison guards in American prison have rifles with laser pointers that show where the shot will go. It cools the jail yard rioter when he sees the little red dot on his chest. Police, when they storm a position, use a stun grenade, also known at a flashbang or flash grenade. These disorient, stun, deafen, and blind the opponent. By the way they were first developed by the British Army’s SAS in the 1960’s.

The closest we have to a phaser is the Taser, which at close ranges does the job, but Riot police also have rubber bullets for standard pistols and rifles, plastic batons (plastic bullets) from specialized guns, and the Bean Bag round from shotguns to strike at a great distance without killing.

For more deadly results, consider the fire and forget facilities in development. US military research agency DARPA says it is homing in on its long-term ambition of producing self-guided bullets, after staging a test in which a sniper was able to shoot at a target at a radically wrong angle, and yet still hit it perfectly. The bullet has fin-stabilized projectiles, spin-stabilized projectiles, and comes in a .50 round. That means a kill from a mile away, or farther.

Want something as an American civilian. TrackingPoint, an Austin-based company, builds smart-rifles with a computer to increase accuracy out to 1,000 yards. After the shooter tags the target the gun adjusts the scope’s crosshairs for a perfect shot when the trigger is pulled. Those Star Trek Phaser rifles haven’t changed since 1966, still with iron sites if any.

Want more fire power. As part of the military, you could add an under the barrel grenade launcher to your rifle today. Then go with a grenade that explodes after it has penetrated the wall and infra-red detection to spot the other guys through the wall.

Did I mention body armor?

Today’s Special Forces have the equipment and training to turn a TNG fire fight into ten seconds of slaughter.

In part, you have to remember that Rodenberry’s view of the 24th century for TNG. It was a utopia where the world is at peace. People are able to receive all of their basic needs. Money no longer exists. Small wonder small arms didn’t advance between the first generation and the second generation almost a century later. We’re not even with hailing distance of the part of the imagined future.

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What Star Trek TNG got right and wrong – 2

We have created some of the Star Trek technology in the last twenty-five-years. In other places we still have to a ways to go. Now TNG showed us the dream. What has been done to make the vision real?


What’s happened with the hypospray? That was a medical device to inject liquids into the body. It used compressed air to deposit the injectant into the subdermal layer below the skin of the body, or artery, without the use of a needle. It turns out that this wasn’t 24th century technology, even when TNG was in production. High pressure air injectors have been used by the military as a common initial entry vaccination method since at least the mid 1980’s. There are several models on the market today, principally used by the U.S. military. These devices used compressed air or co2 gas.


The latest entrant into the field is a device from MIT. This device uses a Lorentz-force actuator – a small, powerful magnet surrounded by a coil of wire that’s attached to a piston inside the drug ampule. No compressed air required.


However these devices do not inject into an artery and are not as safe as first thought. The jet injector breaks the barrier of the skin, so potential biological material can be transferred from one user to the next. One study tested the fluid remaining in the injector for blood after an injection, and found enough to pass on a virus. Blowback from the injection is still a problem. The World Health Organization no longer recommends jet injectors for vaccination due to risks of disease transmission. That’s why you haven’t seen a hypospray in your doctor’s office.


What happened to the medical tricorder? There’s actually an X-prize for creating one. The ten finalists have been chosen, and they must demonstrate their devices on humans in 2015 with three winners to be announced in 2016. Top prize is seven million dollars (U.S.). Part of the problem is definition. The medical tricorder of TNG acted could X-ray bones, scan organs like an MRI, test blood and analyze pathogens. That’s a lot in a hand-held device.


Specialized devices such as blood sugar monitors have made great strides in the last twenty years. Ask any diabetic. Another specialized testing device uses an app, a smart phone and the smartphone’s camera to deliver screening without the need for laboratories and highly trained staff.


For much of the world even this technology is out of reach. Cost is a consideration. Recently, in an attempt to do a mass test for cervical cancer, India resorted to less expensive solution. The test involves swabbing the cervix with vinegar, which turns the precancerous tumors white. The results can be seen in minutes. Using this test and some liquid nitrogen reduced cancer deaths by 31 percent in the testing area. This could save over 72,000 lives if used worldwide. It’s not sexy technology but it gets the job done.











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What Star Trek TNG Got Right and Wrong

Star Trek, the Next Generation, ran from 1987 to 1994.  That’s about over twenty-five-years ago. A generation. It’s set in 2364AD, or almost three hundred years from the broadcast of the first Star Trek series. I watched the first episode and cringed. It was so bad it set a new low for SF on television. Still, I did watch more. Why? A few years earlier I worked as an extra on a show with Gates McFadden who played Dr. Beverly Crusher on TNG.

I didn’t know Gates. I was on the same show and saw her on the set. If you were to ask me about her, all I could tell you is that she knew her lines, and hit her mark. I guess that is quite a lot when you come to think of it,

I have no need to tell you that the show went on to become a great success, spawned spin off shows and movies as well. I thought it would be interesting to look at technology and see the hits and misses as time moves forward.

In communication, Star Trek was ahead of its time, but we’ve caught up quickly. In the first show they had flip phones, and in the second they had the comm badges. Well flip phones have come and gone. I sort of miss them.  They were small, simple, and could hold a charge for a week, unlike my newer smart phone.

Wearable technology is making the comm badge a possibility. However, it will probably look more like Dick Tracy’s radio. The practical problem with the comm badge is that everyone in the room hears both sides of the conversation. No privacy. With current phones, I have had to remind commuters that their ‘cone of silence’ isn’t working and the entire train car can hear some of the conversation. (Remember this when you call your drug dealer.)

And remember how Captain Picard would go to his ready room to receive a video call from Star Fleet? Today you can do the same with your computer, its camera and Skype. Have you noticed that every laptop has a video camera built into it?

Remember, those pads that people would pass to the captain and he would read, while rubbing his chin? The replacement for paper? Then he would take out the attached stylus and make some marks. Well between ereaders and tablets, we can see the technology here today. However, our tablets are touch-screen, in color and have audio. We don’t need the stupid stylus anymore. Still, it will take a while before paper disappears.

How did TNG do with computers? Frankly I’m surprised they still had computers in the 24th century. Voice recognition and control software comes with your Window 8 machine today. Text to speech has been around even longer.  However, the computer voices on TNG sound much more wooden that the computer text of today. Even Lieutenant Reginald Barclay didn’t obsess over the computer’s voice. Contrast that to the character in the 2013 movie ‘Her’ who fell in love with the voice on his telephone.

Remember the iso linear optical chips on TNG. Current technology is getting there. You can go into any computer store in the world to pick up a MicroSD chip for 64Gig. That could hold about a thousand movies.  Solid State ram drives are available for your laptop. (I put one into a server five years ago.) Optical chips are a current topic in U.S. defense contracts. This would be one to visit in another ten years. That would improve capacity and speed. (Why do we need a one Terabyte microSD device?)

I always wanted a Universal Translator. I’m terrible at languages. Today you can buy a device, or down an app to your smart phone that will translate from one language to another. Furthermore, you can speak into it in one language and it will repeat it back in the other language, out loud.  I don’t think they have one that a third party can speak into in a foreign language and it will echo back in your language yet. Why? I once remember listening to a Pole and a Chinese person argue about the news in English. Accents are still a stumbling block for voice-to-text recorders. Who knows what can be done in twenty years on this?

A Company of Knaves and Poets

I’ve been reading about some of these Poet Laureates of Great Britain. My, what a bunch of knaves and poets. I imagine a party with the entire bunch and it would be fun, provided no one was killed.

Consider Ben Jonson. He began as a bricklayer, fought with English troops in Flanders, then returned to London to become an actor, playwright, and a tutor to Sir Walter Raleigh’s son. He’s the one I’d watch at the party. He was tried for killing a fellow actor in a duel in 1598. Imprisoned for this, he converted to Catholicism to be spared death for murder. Perhaps the duel was over a play called ‘The Isle of Dogs’. That piece caused such a stir they closed all the theatres in London.

William Davenant inherited the post on Jonson’s death. He was said to be the godson of William Shakespeare and even rumored to be his love child.

Then there is John Dryden, the only one to be fired from the job. Oh, it wasn’t his poetry. Politics was his downfall. Dryden refused to take an oath of allegiance to William III.

Thomas Shadwell replaced Dryden. This would be another to watch at the party. He was a heavy drinker, and an opium user. Shadwell died from an overdose of opium, which he took in part to relieve his gout. Maybe if he hadn’t drunk he wouldn’t have had the gout.

Nahum Tate is would be a fascinating one to talk to. On one had he wrote the Christmas carol ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’. On the other hand he revised Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘King Lear’ to give it a happy ending. (I can understand the urge, but that’s akin to putting a Pepsodent smile on the Mona Lisa.)

(We will skip the boring ones. OK?)

William Wordsworth received the appointment at the age of 73. He accepted on the condition he didn’t have to write any poetry on demand. A poet Laureate who didn’t write poetry? He wasn’t the first.

Alfred Tennyson served the longest as poet Laureate, and raised the position to new levels through his dedication, his work, and his poetry. On his death he was publicly mourned by millions, and in respect, no appointment was made to the post of Poet Laureate for four years.

John Masefield was originally a merchant marine officer. That’s probably where his love of the sea came from. However, he became ill in Chile, and following that lived a Hemingway sort of life. He was a vagrant, on the tramp, working in factories and bars in the United States. He returned to England to work on newspapers. He married his wife, a woman twelve years his senior. During the WWI he served with the Red Cross in France as a hospital orderly and on a hospital ship at Gallipoli. (He wrote a book about this battle.)

After the end of WWI, Masefield’s life becomes much more ordinary than that of Hemingway. When he was appointed poet laureate (instead of Kipling), Masefield took his appointment seriously and produced a large quantity of verse. In this capacity he sent his poems to ‘The Times’, including an SASE so they could be returned if unacceptable. A modest man.

In late 1966, Masefield developed gangrene in his ankle. This spread to his leg, and he died of the infection on 12 May 1967. He outlived Hemingway by almost six years. That made him the second longest serving Poet Laureate.

Have you ever read a detective story by Nicholas Blake? Those were written by the next poet Laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis.

Ted Hughes is most noted in this role for writing poems for royal events, such as the christening of Prince Henry of Wales in 1985. I wonder what he would say about the ginger headed Prince Harry today.

Carol Ann Duffy currently holds the laurel. This is the first time a woman, a Scott or a gay person has received the honor. With her first poem as poet laureate, she tackled the scandal over British MPs expenses in the format of a sonnet. Since the pen is mightier than the sword, I wouldn’t want to get on her wrong side.

Imagine them all in the same room, talking, eating and drinking. Jonson and Masefield might be trading war stories. Thomas Shadwell and Dryden would certainly be trading insults. That would be one heck of a party.


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Aclaimed poets you never heard of

Poetry is a funny topic. Although it was probably the first human literature and probably predated even writing, we see almost none today. Most famous poets including Lord Byron had to pay to publish their writing. While the words may stir the heart, and live forever, the writers are often forgotten.

No, I don’t write poetry. I have a great respect for those that do and read more than a little of it. However, I lack the patience a poet needs.

The other day I went looking for poetry on the Internet and found more than I could read in the rest of my lifetime. It appears that poets continue to self-publish. Today they use websites. So I tried a different tactic. Instead I went looking for poets. I turned to the term Poet Laureate. This is a poet officially appointed by a government or conferring institution, who is often expected to compose poems for special events and occasions.

There are Poet Laureates for a number of countries, a number of American States, and sometimes cities, or universities. Lots of alternatives. You might search for this term for your own country. So I started with Canada.

What a disappointment. Canada only began the practice in 2001. All the Canadian poets I am familiar with from school and other reading would never have had this opportunity.

The list of Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureates is a follows:

  •     George Bowering (2002–2004)
  •    Pauline Michel (2004–2006)
  •    John Steffler (2006–2008)
  •    Pierre DesRuisseaux (2009–2011)
  •    Fred Wah (2011–2013)
  •    Michel Pleau (2014–present)

I won’t be publishing any of their poems but you might want to search the internet for them.

More on this later.



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Poet Lauretes of Great Britain

Well I was disappointed in the list for Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureates. Not in the poets, but the paucity of the list. So I thought I would review the same list for Great Britain. The appointments began in England under Henry VII in fifteenth century and continue to the present. Here are the names of the poets:

  • Bernard André
  • John Skelton
  • Edmund Spenser
  • Samuel Daniel
  • Ben Jonson
  • William Davenant
  • John Dryden
  • Thomas Shadwell
  • Nahum Tate
  • Nicholas Rowe
  • Laurence Eusden
  • Colley Cibber
  • Thomas Warton
  • Henry James Pye
  • Robert Southey
  • William Wordsworth
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  • Alfred Austin
  • Robert Bridges
  • John Masefield
  • Cecil Day-Lewis
  • John Betjeman
  • Ted Hughes
  • Andrew Motion
  • Carol Ann Duffy.

What shocked me were the names that are missing. Byron, Scott, Kipling. Browning (him and her) and Keats, Yeats, Coleridge, Shelly and Shakespeare. Why?

Well some poets refused the office. Imagine refusing a position with no duties that paid you money and traditionally rewarded you with a butt of canary or sack or sherry, the equivalent of 720 bottles. Cash payments have been presented as an alternative to wine: in 1952, for example, John Masefield was given £27. He should have insisted on the wine.

Some did refuse despite the wine. Thomas Gray, Walter Scott, Philip Larkin, and Seamus Heaney, have declined the post.

Another reason for the missing names was the tenancy of the position. The post was for life until 1999. Tennyson held the position for an impressive forty-two years. Keats (died at the age of 25), Shelley (died at the age of 29) and Byron (died at the age of 36) simply didn’t live long enough to get a shot at it. However, others baffle me.

Well I have a list of poets to investigate now. And probably some interesting stories.



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Enter the Dashcam

This has been a horrible year for the Toronto Transit bus drivers. First one was fired for running a red light and nearly hitting a pedestrian after dash-camera footage was sent in. A second case of a bus running a red light has been recorded.

Then, just before Christmas, a bus ran over a fourteen-year-old girl while making a turn and failed to remain at the scene of the accident. Tragic. (No charges have yet been laid in this incident.)

Finally a TTC bus ran into a streetcar. The driver has been charged. Hitting a streetcar? It makes you wonder why the startling red object the size of, well, of a streetcar, didn’t catch his/her attention.

Now 99% of the bus drivers are responsible, professional and competent drivers. However the TTC has 2031 buses, so it has more than four thousand drivers. My luck would be that I’ll run into one of the bad ones.

So I got a dashcam. It is a little device that mounts on the windshield and it records everything in front of you as you drive. The guy running the yellow right coming through the intersection. The truck that changed lanes without signaling. Mine also records interior sound, my GPS location, my speed. (The last is a bit scary.) In the event of an accident the camera senses the collision and marks the part of its recording before during and after the incident as protected.

A common insurance scam in the Toronto area is to create a fender bender with an innocent car, and then make insurance claims. A dashcam would record that the other car backed into you, or cut you off.

I now have a little more peace of mind when driving. I’ll have proof of my innocence, with complete video and audio. However, one question remains in my mind. I wonder why the auto insurance companies don’t offer a discount for a car with a dashcam.



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Should Old Acquaintance

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and days of long ago?

For days of long ago, my dear,
for days of long ago,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for days of long ago.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for days of long ago.


We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since days of long ago.


We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine†;
But seas between us broad have roared
since days of long ago.


And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for days of long ago.


We can thank the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, for this ode to the passing year. He in his turn started from an old song that he recorded from an old man.  Indeed, a similar ballad “Old Long Syne” was originally printed in 1711 by James Watson.  Here’s that one so you can compare them yourself.

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
On Old long syne.


On Old long syne my Jo,
On Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
On Old long syne.


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32 Gig?

Christmas presents have come and I have some new toys. Here is a general rule for buying presents. Men and women are fundamentally different, so they react differently to presents. In general, men like shiny things with metal and lots of parts, or electronics of any sort.

I received two electronic toys this season, both of which accepted a micro SD card. I visited a computer two and picked up two of them for about twenty dollars each.

Now a Micro SD card is just that a piece of memory, in plastic that is smaller than the nail on your pinky finger. As I installed it, I realized. That’s 32 Gig! My first computer had forty-eight K of memory. This chip has about a million times that.

That Micro SD could hold more than 60 full length movies? What would that be in books? The Paperwhite Kindle has 2gb and can hold approximately 1100 ebooks. That little chip can hold sixteen times that much. Not the entire library of congress, but enough to supply reading for about fifty years.

Moore’s law states that computer chips double in capacity roughly every two years. So expect to see on terabyte Micro SD cards in about ten years.

What will we do with all of this capacity? I mean besides save movies and MP3’s. (Will we bother with MP3 compression?)


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The Start of a Revolution that is still going


The revolution I’m talking about is the Transistor Revolution. Today computers, phones, and cameras rely on these transistors, and the chips that hold billions of them. These chips have wormed their way into everything from cars to washing machines. Yet the creation of the transistor is not yet a century old.
From November 17, 1947 to December 23, 1947, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain at AT&T’s Bell Labs in the United States, performed experiments and observed that when two gold point contacts were applied to a crystal of germanium, a signal was produced with the output power greater than the input. This was the first point-contact transistor. They won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956 for this invention.
John Bardeen (May 23, 1908 – January 30, 1991) was the only person to win the Nobel Prize in Physics twice. He won it again for a fundamental theory of conventional superconductivity known as the BCS theory. He must have been an exceptional man.  After he left Bell Labs for the University of Illinois, his first Ph.D. student was Nick Holonyak (1954), the inventor of the first LED in 1962.
He was an active professor at Illinois from 1951 to 1975 and then became Professor Emeritus. Bardeen continued his research throughout the 1980s, and published articles less than a year before he died at the age of eighty-three.
If you had him for a neighbor, you might not have realized what he did for a living. Bardeen was unassuming. Many of his neighbors of forty years didn’t know about his accomplishments.
The transistor started to replace vacuum tubes in the late 50’s and the early 60’s.  One of the first popular devices was the portable radio. Think about it. This was the first portable device for music listening. It paved the way for the Walkman of the eighties and today’s MP3 players.
The revolution continues.  Google glasses, I-watches, and in 2015 perhaps virtual reality headsets.


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Life Imitates Art

One of the mantras that writers live by is that they should ground their story in reality. ‘Write what you know.’ I’m not completely certain that this is correct and I have been mulling a story from last November that seems to suggest the complete opposite.

Now I’m going to talk about the Hunger Games. This trilogy follows the problems within a dystopian future. The Hunger Games is an annual event in which one boy and one girl aged 12–18 from each of the twelve districts surrounding the Capitol are selected by lottery to compete in a televised battle to the death. (If this plot seems familiar, it’s probably because the Greek Story of Theseus and the Minotaur starts roughly the same way.)

During the Hunger Games, Katniss befriends a 12-year-old girl from another district, Rue. After Rue dies, Katniss surrounds her body with flowers and gives a three-finger salute which becomes a symbol of revolution in the novel and later the movie.

A powerful graphic image on the movie screen.

The pro-democracy protesters in Thailand adopted this salute as a symbol of their movement. Naturally, the military junta responded. They canceled the release of the third of the Hunger Games in the country in November. Five Thai students who flashed the salute at Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha have been detained. Army officials later confirmed that the students were taken to a military camp and were detained for “attitude adjustment”.

This is not the first time a salute has been linked with resistance. A raised fist has been featured in movements as diverse as Feminism, Black Power, and the Union Movement. However, that symbol goes back to Assyrian depictions of the goddess Ishtar.

We learn from reading fiction. We learn from watching movies about fictional people. In Thailand, they found a symbol, a salute to express their needs. Life imitates art.


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The Invention of the Cross-Word Puzzle

On December 21st in 1913 the first crossword puzzle was published in the New York World.

Arthur Wynne is usually credited as the inventor of the popular word game. Wynne puzzle had horizontal and vertical words with hints in the shape of a diamond, internal black squares. The numbering system was different from todays. Instead of grouping the clue by ‘across’ and ‘down’, the clues were indicated by a start and stop number.

Prior to Wynne invention, there had been word puzzles based on the word square, where the letter were arranged to read the same way vertically and horizontally.

In the 1920’s crosswords became an American obsession. One man shot his wife because she wouldn’t help him with a crossword. A Chicago woman sued her husband for divorce, claiming “he was so engrossed in solving crosswords that he didn’t have time to work.”

Yet Wynne didn’t invent the word crossword. He called the puzzle a word-cross. A typesetter reversed the words and crossword stuck.

At first the only place you could find a crossword puzzle was in the New York World. The New York Times resisted the pull of the puzzle until the 1940’s and only put them into the Sunday paper. Weekday puzzles wouldn’t appear there for another decade.

In the 20’s, a couple of young bloods named Richard L. Simon and M. Lincoln Schuster began publishing books of crossword puzzles. They were very successful.

The term crossword first appeared in a dictionary in 1930.

Want to create crosswords, but need some help? Consider the Crossword Compiler. For $169, you can have the same tool used by the people who supply the New York Times and other.


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It Really is a Wonderful Life

Today, December 20, was the release date for Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in 1946. If you haven’t seen this picture, do so. The film has been in the public domain since the 1970’s.

Let’s go to the beginning. In 1939 Philip Van Doren Stern awoke from a dream that was inspired by Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’. He wrote ‘The Greatest Gift’ and rewrote it and played with the 4100 word story until 1943 without success. He couldn’t find a publisher. So, in frustration, he printed two hundred booklets and sent them out as Christmas cards that year.

Smart move. RKO pictures thought the story would be a perfect vehicle for Cary Grant. The actor thought so as well. They bought the movie rights from Stern for ten thousand dollars. (That would have been five years’ salary for a policeman at the time.) RKO commissioned a screen play. Then another screen play and then a third one. After that they unloaded the entire project on a director named Frank Capra.

Frank Capra was a well known and very capable director. His films before the war had been nominated for forty academy awards and had won eleven. After Pearl Harbor, at the age of forty-four, Capra enlisted as a major in the United States Army.

When the war ended, Capra and two other directors founded Liberty Films. Capra bought the movie rights to ‘The Greatest Gift’ and hired writers to create another screen play. This is the only time he took a writing credit for one of his films. He also renamed the picture to its present title.

Jimmy Stewart was also back from the war. He had worked with Capra before. Jean Arthur was considered for the role of Mary Hatch but had prior commitments so Donna Reed got the part.

Filming began on April 15, 1946, and ended on July 27, 1946. It took exactly ninety days as Capra had predicted.

The film was originally slotted for release in 1947, but RKO’s Christmas release of ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ was delayed by production problems. ‘It’s a Wonderul Life’ was rushed into the theatres to take its place.

That’s where the story of the film turned sour. The critics didn’t like it. The movie was a financial failure. The film didn’t recoup its production costs. Liberty Films was sold to Paramount Pictures in May 1947.


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A Christmas Carol was published on Dec 19, 1843

Today, December 19th was the publication date for A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Anyone who hasn’t read the story, or seen the movie (there are at least six versions.) should go to Gutenberg and get a copy. It’s in the Public Domain.

Dickens was unhappy with the amount it earned him. Dickens declined a lump-sum payment for the tale, chose a percentage of the profits in hopes of making more money thereby, and published the work at his own expense. (Tell that to people who look down at self-published books.)

The first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve and the book continued to sell well into the new year. That was at a price of five shillings, a considerable sum.

In 1844 Parley’s Illuminated Library printed a pirated edition. Dickens sued and won his case. However, the book thieves declared bankruptcy and never paid.

Dickens, ever a man who knew the value of publicity and money, began to give readings of the tale in 1853. His last reading was in March 1870, three months before he died.

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Crossing the Lake and other Stories is now available


The ebook is now available on Kindle and on Smashwords.  eight stories for only  $1.99.

These are historical stories.

Crossing the Lake

In 1837, in Upper Canada, The failure of a rebellion left its leaders no choice but to flee.

A Debt of Honor

In 1920 in County Cork, the bitter war between the IRA and the Black and Tans spilled onto Patrick’s farm. Patrick was a pacifist but not a coward.

Number 21 Rue le Sueur

In Paris after the war, an American Colonel questions a Gestapo agent about the events at 21 Rue le Sueur.

The Theater Conundrum

In January 1597 William Shakespeare has a problem. The lease on the Blackfrairs is running out and he doesn’t have any alternative.

Shirley Winters

During the Blitz, a young woman with a secret drives an ambulance through the night under blackout.

The Duel

Vienna after the WWI is a romantic fairyland and the best place to be is at the Sophina Salon to flirt and dance the waltz and fight a duel.

Mother of a People

She never bore a child but became the mother of a people, the wearers of the blue veil.

Attack Along the Road

In May 1940, a SU87 strafed the civilians fleeing on the road and brought the war home to Madeline.


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Days to Christmas

It’s just days to Christmas (Seasonal Holiday if you insist).  A couple of years ago, I came down with a terrible cold on Christmas morning. I mean terrible. A faucet instead of a nose type cold.  Nothing helped. I should have worn a sign saying ‘unclean’ and rung a bell as I moved from room to room.

Well I limped through the day since we had guests over and then tumbled into bed and stayed there for the next two days.

There’s a cold circulating again this Christmas.

Studies on the common cold in England have determined that colds are not spread by wet feet, uncovered heads, or even cold weather. Furthermore, they showed that French kissing didn’t transmit a cold either.  However, handshaking did. (I’m not suggesting that you French kiss instead of shaking hands.)

Why? Saliva doesn’t carry the virus. It’s the mucus from the respiratory track that does. This is an example of what happens.

George who doesn’t know he has a cold yet, rubs his nose, probably in the washroom. He comes out, and wishes you a ‘Happy Holiday’ with a handshake. You go on your way and rub your eye. Bingo you will have the cold in two to four days.

How to avoid a cold? Skip the handshake and give George a hug instead. (Note: If George is running a high fever and sweating, just give him a fist bump instead. He might have Ebola. <That was a joke, son.>)

Wash your hands often. Carry a hand sanitizing spritzer. Train yourself to stop touching your face, at least with your right hand. Those will all help.

If you do get a cold, remember there’s no cure. It will last seven to ten days. All you can do is get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Zinc lozenges can help shorten the cold if you chew them all the time in the first couple of days.

Best to avoid the cold in the first place, so you can enjoy the season.


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In Honor of Black Friday

I’m giving away a short stoy as an Ebook.

Use this coupon code LU87Z.

A short story.

When Hell’s in Session in Abilene, the brothers of the trail have to take care of each other.

In the summer of 1869, the cattle herds came north from Texas to Abilene, the end of the trail. At that time, no more lawless town existed. The Topeka Commonwealth paper declared, “At this writing Hell is now in session in Abilene.”



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Too much of a good thing

The snow falling on Buffalo is epic. That’s the only word that makes any sense. While a foot or so of snow is great for making snow angels and snowmen, seven feet of it cripples all the transportation and closes everything down.

While we instinctively understand that seven feet of snow (213 cm) is a lot, we tend to react with ‘It’s just snow’ and the ‘They don’t know what snow is’ response. Certainly people in Montreal and Newfoundland get a lot of snow each year.

The record for the most snow in a season goes to the Mt. Baker Ski area which received 1,140 inches (95.0 ft.; 29.0 m), during the 1998–99 season. Mt. Baker also enjoys the unofficially highest average annual snowfall of any resort in the world, with 641 inches (53.4 ft.; 16.3 m). However, Mt Baker doesn’t hold the record for a single day.

The heaviest 24-hour snowfall on record in the mainland United States is 75.8 inches (192 centimeters), which fell at Silver Lake, Colorado, in 1921.

Currently Buffalo has received seven feet or 84 inches. They may have just set a new record for snowfall in a single day. Even if they don’t that much snow in a couple of days boggles the mind.

Today the City of Buffalo has started to prepare for the next catastrophe. With temperatures expected to go up the 50’s (13C) that snow will melt and it contains about 6 inches of water. Imagine six inches of rain in 24 to 48 hours. Remember that the snow will have the grates pugged.

Epic. Maybe not Noah level, but certainly the memory of a lifetime.


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The Horse Thief and Other Short Stories is now on Amazon

My first Ebook has been published on Amazon. It’s a Kindle ebook, containing six short stories of a Western theme.

This is a bit of an experiment for me. Why this approach? Secondary rights for short stories don’t have much of a market (unless you’re a Stephen King) so I found trying to place the stories a second time was taking more time than it was worth. Believe me, submitting a story to a magazine or collection takes time.

So I gathered my westerns into a collection and put them out as an ebook. Now I like Westerns. However, the market for Westerns is almost as bad as it is for short stories.

To see The Horse Thief and other short stories on Amazon just go to:

The Horse Thief and Other Short Stories



A Hero you Never Heard of

Beginning on April 7, 1994, and continuing for one hundred days,   between 500,000 and one million people died because they were of the wrong race, in Rwanda. I don’t want to talk about the causes, or the failures. Instead I want to talk about one man, a man you probably have never heard of.

Mbaye Diagne was a captain in the Senegalese military and a UN military observer in Rwanda. At thirty-six, this devout Muslim was married with two children.

In the opening hours of the Genocide, the Prime minister, Agate Usilingiyimana and her husband were assassinated. The ten Belgian peacekeepers assigned to protect here were also killed.

What happened to her four children? No one knew. Mbaye came to investigate and found them hiding in a nearby housing compound. Eventually he hid the children under a tarp in the back of his car and drove them to the comparative safety of his hotel.

This set the tone for his days and nights. Captain Mbaye Diagne would find victims and try to save them, five or six at a time. He drove though militia checkpoints, using his wits, his humor, and his courage. He carried cigarettes, and even beer and whiskey to use as bribes. When that failed, he used money, even his own rations to buy the lives.

How much can one man do? We don’t’ know but the American Fulbright Scholar Richard Siegler thinks that he saved a 1,000 or more lives.

On the morning of 31 May 1994, Mbaye was taking an important written message from the head of the government army, Augustin Bizimungu, to the UN commander, Romeo Dallaire. Mbaye stopped at the checkpoint and a mortar round exploded on the road a short distance from his car. He was hit and died instantly.


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Television is destroying itself

I know. People have been saying this since the boob tube first lit up in black and white. And despite all the efforts of the channels, the advertisers, and the producers, television has grown from the three big channels into an array of hundreds.

However, this time, I think they may succeed. Have patience and listen to my thinking.

The reason that television didn’t destroy itself in the 50’s through 90’s was simple. Free entertainment, no matter how bad, will continue to have an audience. Television killed the radio drama, its major competition. That left only reading as an alternative, and frankly the changes in the publishing industry show that industry is even more out of touch with the consumer.

Today that has changed. With the Internet, Netflix, and YouTube, the consumer (viewer) can watch what he wants, when he wants by clicking a few buttons on the computer. Or pad, or phone. Technological advances have changed the way video consumption occurs.

Don’t believe me? Do you believe Nielsen, the television rating people? They have been in the business since 1950. They say “In percentage terms, traditional TV viewing among 18-24-year-olds in Q2 2014 was down by 11.7% year-over-year. Between Q2 2011 and Q2 2014, weekly viewing fell by 21.7%, a sizable figure.”

If Americans bought 21.7% fewer cars than three years ago, it would be plastered on every newspaper in the country.

Now why the change? We there are more alternatives. Video games have grown into a major player. (Sorry about that pun.) They took in about $9.5 billion in the US in 2007, 11.7 billion in 2008, and 25.1 billion in. (I don’t have figures for the last four years, but the trend continues.) Then there’s view on demand from the internet of movies and television shows.

However, my gripe is with the television industry. If they want people to watch movies and shows on the boob tube, you would think they would make it easy for us to find what we wanted. I think they are doing the opposite.

Two years ago, I had a web page I could turn to. It showed what was on television. All the stations by station number for the cable on one scroll down list. If I clicked on a particular station, I could see a listing of the scheduled shows for the next two weeks. Simple, easy to use, and useful.

It’s gone. The web page is still there, but they changed it so I can only see 13 channels at a time, I can’t search for shows, and it doesn’t list the channels by the station number on my cable. I am now forced to use a paper TV listing that comes with the newspaper to find out what’s on.

I’m not the only one frustrated. In a recent humorous sketch I saw, the people were playing a version of ‘Battleships’, searching for the telecast of a hockey game on the myriad of ‘sports’ channels.

If I can’t find the show on broadcast television, I will search for direct viewing on the internet. Television is losing me, and I’m the demographic who still watches it, for the present.

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Get the Flu Shot

November first fell on a Saturday this year. On that Saturday I went to the local Flu Shot clinic and received my shot for this year. Since I live in Canada, the flu shot cost me nothing, not a penny.

Why? Several years ago, the government of the province on Ontario weighed the cost of a free flu shot for everyone, versus the cost of hospitalizing victims of the flu. Providing vaccinations proved to be much less expensive. The key is everyone. With 60% or more of the population vaccinated, the flu won’t spread.

Every year between three thousand and fifty thousand Americans die from the flu. That’s the dead ones, not the ones that end up in hospital for days or weeks. During the 2012-13 flu season the CDC estimated that more than thirty-two million had the flu and more than 381,000 Americans were hospitalized for it. (In that period Boston declared a public health emergency over the flu.)

I know. You don’t get the flu shot and never had the flu. You have a special immunity to all disease as a result of Divine intervention. The flu is no big deal anyway.

Just think about this. The initial symptoms of the Flu and Ebola are similar; temperature, sweating, coughing, and so forth. If you feel sick, is it Ebola, or the Flu? Imagine you go to the hospital and they put you in isolation until they are certain. Or that you have to wait in a room filled with sick people.

Take the easy way out. Get the shot.



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Measures for Historical Fiction

After writing about the creation of the Metric System, I began to wonder what came before it? In the English speaking world this is simple to see. Many of the measurements continue to be used in certain areas. However, I imagine that more modern readers wouldn’t know what they mean. The old measurements remain embedded in the language through novels, songs, and even proverbs.

So here are some of those measurements, and what they mean, and where they came from.

The Foot

The foot is a basic measurement of length, and the basis of all distance measurement for the United States today, and for most of the British Empire over centuries. This is a gift from the Roman past. The Roman’s had a measurement called a pes or foot. The general modern consensus places the Roman foot at 296 mm.

The foot is about the size an adult male foot, or an average adult male’s foot is about a foot long.

The Inch

The Romans divided their foot in two ways, digitus (finger) or uncia (thumb). The thumb became the English inch, and twelve inches to a foot came from the Romans as well. The earliest reference to this measurement comes from the seventh century where the laws defined the fine for various wounds.

An inch is 25.4 mm.

Other Roman measurements

The Romans has other measurements that have come down to us. These include palmus(hand) cubitus(cubit) passus(pace) stadium (furlong) mille passuum(mile) and Gallic leuga(league). While some of these measurements are not in common usage in even the United States, they remain in our language.

Hand and Furlong

The Hand measurement remains in some use as the unit to measure the height of a horse. You might run into it in American Westerns. However, you might also run into this measurement in historical novels about Ancient Egypt where it originated, along with the cubit.

A hand is 94mm. A cubit is 525mm.

The furlong also ties into horses, and other animals. Horse race distances were measured in Furlongs, and related to the plowing and land area in medieval times. Ontario Canada had major roads laid out every ten furlongs, so two highway exits are often every two kilometers. The furlong is about the same length as the Roman stadium, which they imported from the Greeks. That’s why you’ll find it in the King James Bible.

A furlong is about 201 meters.

Rods and Chains

Now here are two measurements that are obsolete, fun, and almost always misused in historical novels, the Rod and the Chain. Both are tools for surveying land. Why? You could have an actual Rod (or perch or pole) and an actual chain. Furthermore, you can’t stretch a rod or a chain. (Although I’m willing to bet that some scoundrels were not above shortening a chain or a pole if they could get away with it.)

The standardization of the length of a Rod and a Chain in England came in the sixteenth century. Those would have been the tools George Washington used when he acted as a surveyor.

A Rod is 5.03 meters.

A Chain is 20.11 meters

The Mile

So the mile started as a roman measurement of a thousand paces or five thousand feet. Don’t ask me why the English made it longer. The romans marked their roads with milestones and those stones remain to this day from England to the Middle-East. While that is the parent measurement, it has a raft of children.

The land mile is 1,609.34 meters

There is another mile in common usage, the nautical mile. This is approximately one minute of an arc along any meridian. The nautical mile remains in use by sea and air navigators worldwide because of its convenience when working with charts. A distance measured with a chart divider can be roughly converted to nautical miles using the chart’s latitude scale.

Now the nautical mile is a bit of a slippery distance. It varies between 1,842.9 meters at the equator to about 1,861.7 at the pole. (The earth is not perfectly round.) In 1929 it was set to exactly 1852 meters.

In the middle ages the Muslim geographers created a measurement based on the arc of the meridian as well. Caliph Al-Ma’mun commissioned astronomers and geographers to determine the length of this arc, and by calculation, the circumference of the Earth in 830 AD.

In the middle ages the Danish, German, Swedish, and Portuguese had variations on this theme that ranged from two to twelve kilometers.

The league

To the Romans a league was the distance a soldier could march in an hour, about three Roman miles. In English it is three land miles, but at sea it is three nautical miles. The measurement is no longer an official unit in any country. However it remains in our language because of poetry and fiction. Here are two that come to mind:

  • The charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson
  • Twenty thousand Leagues under the sea by Jules Verne.
  • The seven league boots of fairy tales



Keep five yards from a carriage, ten yards from a horse, and a hundred yards from an elephant; but the distance one should keep from a wicked man cannot be measured.

Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Over a distance of a thousand miles only humanity works, not power.

A miss is as good as a mile.

After dinner rest a while, after supper walk a mile.

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Ebola Spreads

Ebola. If you have never heard of this disease, you are truly out of touch with the world.

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a disease caused by a virus that begins very much like the flu. Symptoms first appear between two and twenty days after the person is infected. This is a hemorrhagic fever, meaning that the infected person will bleed from various parts of the body. Between 50 and 90% of the people infected will die as a result.

There is no vaccine. There is no treatment, but some experimental ones are being developed.

Dead bodies can transmit the disease. The semen of a recovering man can spread the disease up to 50 days later.

Scared yet?

Good news about Ebola.

Only contact with blood or other bodily fluids from the sick spreads Ebola. It does not become contagious until after the symptoms appear. The disease was first detected in 1976. It has never spread from to the rest of the world

This current outbreak began in March of this year. It began in Guinea. It spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Most recent it has spread to Nigeria. Normally Ebola kills so quickly and completely that it wipes people out before they can spread the disease very far, especially in a rural setting.

Why does Ebola appear in rural settings? Scientists believe that the disease has a natural reservoir in the population of fruit bats. The fruit bats are also a form of bush meat in rural communities.

Why is this outbreak different?

The disease has not burned itself out. It has spread instead. Furthermore, it’s spread from rural to urban settings. Lagos, Nigeria has a population of 21 million. That’s much larger than Monrovia, which only had four hundred thousand citizens.

From these cities, cases or potential cases have appeared in Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Benin and Uganda. The miracle of modern air travel brings people across the globe in hours.

How are conditions in Monrovia, Liberia?

Initially the people of the city denied that the disease actually existed insisting it was only a plot by the government to take greater control, and spend more money. (Sound like Republicans?) Then the rumors began. Doctors are harvesting organs from those that die for rich Europeans. Someone poisoned the water in the wells.

The reality is worse than the rumors. Medical staff have left their jobs to avoid the disease. For this reason, people with other diseases cannot find treatment. People are afraid to go to the hospital in case they are forced into quarantine with those infected with Ebola. Food prices are rising faster than the death toll.

Desperate to avoid the quarantine, people drag the dying from their houses to leave them in the streets.

In rural areas, aid workers and nurses in hazmat-like suits have been threatened and attacked.

The government has declared a state of emergency. It has closed schools and forbidden large gatherings.

British Airways has suspended its flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Troops have been deployed to quarantine the border.

Yet life continues.

The city is open, but different. Before entering a building, you must wash your hands in chlorinated water. The locals quip, “Our hands will really get white.” Some people are wearing masks and gloves. No touching. Many institutions have asked non-essential staff to stay home.

Finally, true to their nature, some politicians have attacked the government’s approach to fighting the disease.

What lies in the Future?

Despite the media campaign, there remains a strong distrust for the government’s efforts. With medical staff getting sick or deserting their posts, and the closure of one hospital in Monrovia, medical treatment for any illness is more difficult.

There have been riots because the government is too slow to pick up the bodies of the dead along the road. To speed this up the government is turning to cremation instead of burial.

Imagine Lagos, a city that is forty times as large. There are nine confirmed cases there.

To confirm Ebola, a blood sample must be taken, deactivated, and then tested for a specific genetic material. This can take more than forty-eight hours.

We can only hope that governments and people take the middle way. Life must continue. Trucks must carry food to the stores, and the fuel to the gas stations. On the other hand, vigilance, and care are required.

As for me. I think I’ll watch Contagion again, pick up some hand sanitizer, gloves and a mask, just in case.

Latest news:

Zambia has banned entry to all people coming from the West African nations where the Ebola virus has broken out. It becomes the second African nation after Ghana to impose a travel ban.

Test have shown that the suspected cases in Saudi Arabia, New York,  Ontario and Hong Kong  were not Ebola.

Nigeria has banned movement of dead bodies from within and outside the country as part of its measures to avoid the spread of the Ebola virus.

The Christian Council of Ghana has dismissed suggestions that the Ebola disease that has hit some West African countries is a punishment from God.

Contractors at ArcelorMittal SA’s iron ore mine in Liberia are evacuating the country and other miners are sending staff home to prevent the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

Romanian health authorities said on Sunday that a 51-year-old Romanian man suspected of having contracted a severe infectious disease during a visit to Nigeria last month did not have Ebola.

Even later

In Nigeria, health officials say they have ten confirmed cases and two deaths.

In Sierra Leone all bars, cinemas, video parlors and nightclubs were told to stop their activities. All “mushroom” and private health clinics must stop their operations. The Sierra Leone Police will organize regular patrols to prevent illegal activities including unauthorized movement of Ebola-infected persons. Non-essential travel will be restricted between the Ebola epicentres of Kenema and Kailahun and the rest of the country.

Monday snippets

The Nigerian Government has set up an isolated area at Mainland Hospital in Yaba, Lagos.

In the international wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos,  a middle -aged man slumped and died, while queuing up to get the yellow card. The new Minister of Aviation, Mr Osita Chidoka, was on tour of the Lagos Airport for the first time when he and his entourage stumbled on the corpse.

An airplane traveling over Norway was forced to land in Trondheim after a coughing fit in an African passenger triggered an Ebola panic.

Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja His Eminence, John Cardinal Onaiyekan  has stated that worshippers would henceforth receive the Holy Communion bread in their palms instead of the usual practice of sticking out their tongues to receive the bread. He also suspended the shaking of hands, a practice usually observed regularly during church service.


In Liberia people are turning to traditional healers to combat Ebola.  Some try exorcism performed in the church with touching and chanting. Other healers rub the body with limes and onions.

Con men sell ‘Ebola vaccinations’ in the markets.

In Nigera, rumor has it that Ebola can be prevented with ordinary hot water with salt. Two leading Nigerian newspapers, citing unnamed sources, reported that excessive salt consumption led to two deaths and 20 hospitalizations.

Wednesday and Thursday Snippets

Guinea, where the outbreak has killed at least 377, declared a “health emergency” on Wednesday and ordered strict controls at border points and a ban on moving bodies.

The United States ordered the evacuation of diplomats’ families from Sierra Leone.

The National Hajj Commission (NAHCON) on Thursday said that people who have contract Ebola would not be allowed to  perform this year’s pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Over 60,000 Nigerians are expected to participate in the 2014 hajj.

In Sierra Leone, the country’s chief medical officer, Dr Brima Kargbo, told of the difficulties facing health workers. “We still have to break the chain of transmission to separate the infected from the uninfected. There is a rejection among people of the existence of Ebola and hostility towards health workers.”

The Ebola virus has killed 56 people in just two days, bringing the global death toll to 1069, the World Health Organization says. The number of confirmed infections jumped by 128. New cases and deaths had been registered in all four west African countries.

Friday and Saturday

Makers of dietary supplements aggressively targeting Africans, claiming to have a cure for the lethal virus. Natural Solutions Foundation said that it’s product contains microscopic silver particles. Rima E. Laibow, posted an “open to heads of Ebola-impacted states,” dated July 29, claiming that NanoSilver cured Ebola.

Several widely available drugs that were initially developed to treat patients with cardiovascular diseases and diabetes may be effective. They don’t treat the Ebola, but they reduce the chances of organ failure from Ebola, which decrease mortality rates. This suggestion came from David S. Fedson,  a retired professor of medicine at the University of Virginia, and  Steven M. Opal,  a professor of medicine at Brown University.

Finally the World Health Organization (WHO) is reconsidering a potential Ebola treatment tried as far back as 1976. The treatment uses the blood of people who have recovered from an infection to treat those still fighting the virus. Convalescent serum has been used in other outbreaks (eg in China during SARS).

Kenya Airways has suspended commercial flight operations to Liberia and Sierra Leone temporarily effective Tuesday 19th August 2014.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month issued the first extensive guidelines for hospitals on how recognize and treat Ebola patients. The C.D.C. says that health care workers treating Ebola patients need only wear gloves, a fluid-resistant gown, eye protection and a face mask to prevent becoming infected.

No “moon suits”. Not everyone agrees.


A crowd of several hundred local residents, chanting, ‘No Ebola in West Point,’ drove away the burial team and their police escort. The mob then forced open an Ebola isolation ward and took the patients out, many saying that the Ebola epidemic is a hoax. The isolation center, a closed primary school originally built by USAID, was being used by the Liberian health ministry to temporarily isolate people suspected of carrying the virus. Some 10 patients had ‘escaped’ the building the night before, according to a nurse, as the center had no medicine to treat them.


the number of Ebola virus cases surpasses 1,600 in four African countries.

The authorities in countries affected by Ebola should check people departing at international airports, seaports and major border crossings and stop any with signs of the virus from traveling, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday.

Beware of Ebola virus e-mails! Cashing in on the Ebola virus syndrome, cyber criminals are using the fear of the virus as bait leading to malware infections. Anti-virus experts have already found three malware operations and one phishing campaign using the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa as a social engineering theme.


  • Cases in West Africa’s Ebola outbreak this year have risen to 2,240, including 1,229 deaths, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.

In parts of Liberia they cannot bury the dead because they have no body bags.

The Liberian government has imposed a night time curfew.


Riot police and soldiers acting on their president’s orders used scrap wood and barbed wire to seal off 50,000 people inside their Liberian slum Wednesday, trying to contain the Ebola outbreak.

Liberian soldiers on Wednesday fired into a crowd of young men who were trying to escape a quarantine that cordoned off an Ebola-stricken neighborhood in the capital.

More than 700 Air France crewmembers, including pilots, have signed the petition. “They say we are trained to spot Ebola,” he told Le Figaro. “That’s false. We’re not trained to do anything other than put on rubber gloves and surgical masks and lock suspected patients in the lavatories. That’s not enough.”

Air France is the last remaining major European airline still flying directly to the Ebola-affected West African cities of Conakry, Guinea, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, causing ample concern.

The authorities in countries affected by Ebola should check people departing at international airports, seaports and major border crossings and stop any with signs of the virus from traveling, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday. – See more at:
The authorities in countries affected by Ebola should check people departing at international airports, seaports and major border crossings and stop any with signs of the virus from traveling, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday. – See more at:

On a Different Topic

I’ve been tracking down my stories that are available on the Internet and setting up pointers to them from my website. If you haven’t visited it recently, you’ll find new material.

To see some of my short stories go to


Where did Metric come from?

To most of the world today, the temperature is in Celsius, the road is in kilometers, and the butter is by the gram. The United States uses Fahrenheit, miles, and pounds.

However, in much of the British commonwealth, confusion rules in many places. You can still get a pint in a pub, before walking a mile or two to the station.

To create the Metric System, we needed a couple of things. One was the Arabic numerals, which were invented in India, and came back to Europe with the crusaders, along with the Gothic arch and other strange and interesting things. Why? The Metric System was based on the idea of tens, or tenths. Before the Arabic numerals, Europe used Roman numerals. Quick, how much is “IV” time “L”? Never mind. “IV” is four, and “L” is 50, so the answer is 200 or “CC”.

John Wilkins in 1668 was one of the first to propose a decimal system of measurement for length and mass in a paper to the Royal Society of London. Imagine an alternative history where this was accepted.

After the French Revolution, the new government created a department of Weights and Measures. This department recommended the country create a new system to replace the multitude of different systems throughout the country.

As France conquered Europe, it introduced its new standards for measuring distance and weight. After its defeat, some places returned to the old ways. However the simplicity of the Metric System gradually won acceptance for parts of Europe, starting with the Netherlands. By 1875, two thirds of Europeans and half of the World’s population had started to use the new system. Initially, England and Russia resisted. Russia switched to it in 1924. England adopted it in 1965.

Interesting fact. The gram was originally 1/100th of a grave. However, a grave was also a synonym for a count. That was too aristocratic a term for the egalitarian revolution. So the term was replaced with the kilogram.

Strange as it may sound, there is a strong American connection to the creation of the Metric System. In 1782, Jefferson argued for a decimal currency. He succeeded and the first American currency had one hundred cents to the dollar. The British retained their pounds, shillings and pence system until 1971. Jefferson also tried to create a decimal system of measurement, suggesting 10 inches to a foot. However, in this case, his efforts failed.

The American relationship with Metric continued. The Metric law of 1866 made it unlawful to refuse to trade or deal in metric quantities. Then in 1927, several million people sent over 100,000 petitions backed by the Metric Association and The General Federation of Women’s Clubs urging Congress to adopt the metric system. Finally, in 1975, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Metric Conversion Act which declared the Metric system “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce.” A complete failure.

Personally, I like the old system. I like a world measured in inches, hands, spans, feet, yards, rods, furlongs, miles and leagues. I like a world where weight is measured in teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, pounds, stones, and tons. Still, when I want to do arithmetic, I revert to Arabic rather than Roman numerals. When converting cups into teaspoons I do the same thing, switch to metric to find the answer.

The point for any writer of historical fiction is simple. Remember metric measurement didn’t exist before 1790.



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The Last Footsteps on the Moon

On December 14, at 5:55 P.M. EST 1972, the ascent stage of the Lunar Module for the Apollo 17 mission lifted off. Aboard it, were the last two men to walk on the moon, Eugene Andrew “Gene” Cernan and Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt. Neither man would ever return to space.

Schmitt was the first scientist to fly into space, a geologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard. The decision to send a scientist instead of a pilot met with some resistance.  Cernan was publicly critical of it. However, in Cernan’s words, Schmitt proved a capable LM pilot.

Cernan had served as a fighter pilot, pilot of the Gemini 9A and lunar module pilot of Apollo 10.  Before re-entering the LM for the final time, Gene Cernan said, “I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come.”

The men knew that this was a last mission in the Apollo program, and the last planned flight to the moon.  They did what they could with this last mission. They collected 244 pounds (111 kilograms) of lunar material. This included the strange orange soil that proved to be microscopic glass beads from volcanic activity.

Strange and interesting lunar facts
Cernan’s distinction as the last person to walk on the moon means that Purdue University holds the distinction of being the alma mater of both the first person to walk on the Moon and the last.

The Apollo 17 Lunar Rover had the last fender bender on the moon. Cernan caught his hammer under the right-rear fender, breaking it off. They repaired the fender with duct tape, but not before getting covered with moon dust.

Moon dust smells like spent gunpowder.

The Apollo 17 plaque has the inscription: “Here Man completed his first explorations of the Moon. December 1972 AD. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.”

President Richard M. Nixon’s signature is on this plaque.

While the American flag from the first landing was knocked over, when they took off, the one from the Apollo 17 mission remains standing as of April 21, 2012. There is a picture showing its shadow on the surface.

After forty years, the color has been bleached out of the flag by unfiltered sunlight.

Apollo 17 was the first night launch of a U.S. human spaceflight. It was also final crewed launch of a Saturn V rocket.

Man left the moon for the last time:
·    Before Microsoft was founded,
·    Before the U.S. pulled out of South Vietnam,
·    Before Elvis Presley died,
·    Before Roe versus Wade legalized abortions in the U.S.,
·    Before Star Wars,
·    Before microwave ovens, cell phones, internet,
·    Before personal computers and YouTube.
On YouTube, you can watch the following:

·    Liftoff  –
·    Lunar Landing –
·    Lunar launch –
·    Splash down –

Apollo 17 spacecraft landed safely in the Pacific Ocean  at 2:25 P.M., 6.4 kilometers (4.0 mi) from the recovery ship, the USS Ticonderoga. Cernan, Evans and Schmitt were then retrieved by a recovery helicopter and were safely aboard the recovery ship 52 minutes after landing.


To see some of my short stories go to

Searching for the origin of January 1 as the beginning of the year.

The Summer solstice has passed. Now the days grow shorter. This got me to thinking of the importance of the longest day of the year and the shortest day of the year, which is December 21.

So why does the New Year begin almost two weeks later? It just didn’t make any sense to me. I decided to dig a little and the story gets stranger and stranger.

Until the last two hundred years, almost everyone worked on a farm. If the most technologically advance European countries had more farm workers than anything else. What’s the most important single issue for any farmer? When he should plant his crops. Plant too soon and a killing frost will destroy your work. Plant too late, and your crops won’t mature before the first frost of fall.

Early astronomy tracked the movements of the sun and moon, and hence the time of the year. The summer and winter solstice were critical since the lunar cycle doesn’t match the annual solar cycle.

The first thing I discovered was the New Year doesn’t begin on January first for everyone. The Chinese New year occurs on the New Moon of the first lunar month. That is somewhere between January 21 and February 21.

The Islamic Calendar is a lunar calendar of twelve months, made of 354/355 days. Right. It’s about ten days short of a solar year, so the new year keeps moving from year to year.

So that made me think I should investigate the beginning of the year and Christianity. When does the Catholic Liturgical year begin? It begins with the beginning of Advent, which begins four Sundays before December 25, Christmas Day. Sort of makes sense, but doesn’t help me in my quest.

Is the origin of January First rooted in ancient times? The Babylonians created the Zodiac about three thousand years ago. They were great astronomers and they gave us the Astrology we use today. I checked. Their new year was around the spring Equinox.

Now I remembered that the Romans used something similar, which is why December got the name of the tenth month, even though it was the twelve month. Is there nothing logical about our calendar?

However, that led me to another article. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar. The revised calendar was designed to stay in sync with the solar year without human intervention. Plutarch and Pliny wrote about it. The reform began by changing the length of the Roman months by adding days to them.

Now the month of January was named for the god name Janus, the god of doors and gates. Perhaps that is why Julius made the first day of that month the beginning of the year.

Whatever the reason, Julius Caesar gave us January 1 as the beginning of the year.


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The Belly Button Clicker

Recently a friend has been working to create a small wearable device that would signal a computer a mouse click when the user clenches his muscles in his stomach. Naturally, I thought of the belly button button or the belly button clicker. Now it actually has nothing to do with the belly button, but it sounds funny.

Although I’m laughing, this is a serious field of endeavor. Person/machine interfaces have been a triumph and disaster over the last couple of centuries. Some of the compromises remain with us today.

For example, the QWERTY keyboard that I am typing on was created for the original typewriter. The placement of the keys was intentional, a solution to a consistent problem. Typists would exceed the machine’s ability with their typing, so the keyboard was designed to slow the humans down to the machine’s speed. More than a century later we still use it. Despite efforts to introduce a better keyboard layout, it remains the standard.

Keyboards have a host of similar issues. In one version of its personal computer, IBM changed the size and shape of the carriage return button. (That’s now called the ‘Enter’ button.) IBM should have known better, having practically created a monopoly in typewriters with its ‘Selectric Typewriter’. The revision met ridicule, and one entrepreneur sold a joke extension to the right pinky finger to handle the new keyboard.

If you want to see a different keyboard for text entry, look at the one used by court reporters, the Stenotype. With one, a reporter can type two hundred or more words a minute. Compare that to the 30 words a minutes you needed in Keyboarding 101.

Not all mistakes have had such humorous consequences. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) lost a fortune investing in a mechanical typesetter. His losses force him to go on a world tour, packing audiences to hear his humor. Perhaps that is how the stand-up comic began.

I won’t discuss the numeric keypad that can be seen on everything from computer keyboards to adding machines, to electric calculators, to telephones, to security access devices. With only ten digits and a couple of other things, you’d expect they could be consistent. Really? Pull out your phone and compare it to your keyboard numeric pad.

The telephone keypad originated with the “Touch Tone” phones introduced in the 1960’s. The Computer number pad followed the design of the cash register and adding machines. Hence the double zero key. The result is that we have two numeric pads in our lives one with the ‘7’ in the top left corner, and another with a ‘1’ there. No one expected calculators and telephones to merge. Silly humans.

Today, we interact with computers in one form or another throughout most of our day. The types of interfaces have expanded. Touchscreen, voice recognition, thumb pads, stylus, and of course the mouse with its click and double click.

I remember years ago experimenting with dual mouses on a computer. I controlled one by hand. I control the other, a track ball, with my foot. The belly button clicker would have been perfect. I could have controlled the mouse while keeping my hands on the keyboard. Ask any old time users and they will explain that WordPerfect 5.2 for DOS was perfect because you could accomplish anything you wanted with a combination of the control, Alt and Function keys.

My friend’s efforts fit in with so many new uses for computers. A company is touting a putter which has sensors. It can tell the golfer how smooth his stroke is, the angle of the head to the motion and a host of other things. In effect, the putter is an input device to the computer.

How will we interact with computers and the world in twenty years? Will we have mind reading machines? Digital interfaces wired into our bodies? Computer screens on contact lenses in our eyes?

I suspect that anything I suggest that is too outlandish, will be to conservatives.

However, I’ll bet that one hundred years from now there will still be QUERTY keyboards and keyboarding classes in school.

To see more on the Belly Button Clicker:

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The Battle of Kitty Hawk, NC

In Dare County, one part of the Carolina Outer Banks, lies a village with population of 3,272 people in 2010. Yet this speck of land in all the United States may prove to be at the central focus for the greatest issue of the 21st century.

The Outer Banks are a series of islands, sandbanks that stick above the waves, that stretch along the Atlantic coast of North Carolina. Hurricanes reshape them on a regular basis creating new inlets and closing old ones. However man has settled there, and he wants things more permanent, and North Carolina’s highway 12 is one of his efforts to make things permanent.

What is the name of this village and why is it important? The place is named Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright, walked into town and sent a telegram to their father to tell him of their first controlled airplane flight. Those flights actually took place four miles away, at the Kill Devil Hills. If you journey from Kitty Hawk, south on US 158, you eventually end up on NC-12.

In American History, Kitty Hawk ranks with Lexington, Manassas, and Gettysburg. These were all places where Americans hammered out their history. Its place in history has been cemented as the name has been used  on an aircraft carrier, and the Apollo fourteen command module.

Why could Kitty Hawk become central in a new issue? The town lies at an elevation of seven feet above sea level. Since the ocean is rising faster here than anywhere else on the Eastern seaboard, you have a flash point for the controversy over Global Warming.

This is where the story takes a decidedly political turn, and involves the American political system. In 2011 the state authorities accepted a prediction that sea levels would rise by 39 inches in the next 85 years. That spells death for the highway and the communities along the Outer Banks.

In 2012, the Republicans took control of the state. They selected a new forecast, one that only looks 30 years ahead, and predicts a rise of eight inches in ocean level.

The story fascinates me because it combines history, science and politics. If you look at a map, you can see that Kitty Hawk cannot be defended from the rising ocean by dykes. The ocean surrounds it. What will happen?

I don’t know. I have my own prediction, as do both the Democrats and the Republicans. Perhaps in 30 years the issue will be settled, one way or the other.

Just keep Kitty Hawk in mind. There are barrier islands from south of Virginia Beach to Key West and towns like Kitty Hawk along the way. What happens there, affects citizens from North Carolina to Florida.

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The future and the self driving car

Recently Google has been testing a self-driving car. The planned production model will not have a steering wheel. Everyone that I know wants one, including myself. Why? Imagine the convenience. I commute and with such a car, I would no longer have to worry about the traffic. I could sit back and read a book, sip my coffee, get a head start of the workday. I want one with a coffee maker and a microwave.

Do you remember a book/movie called ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’? In the book, the lawyer didn’t have an office. He did all his work in his car, chauffeured from appointment to appointment. With the introduction of the self-driving car, you can expect more such professionals in real life.

That got me to thinking about the implications of such a vehicle. ‘What if’ thinking if you prefer to call it that.

What would car insurance for such a vehicle be? On one hand, the vehicle would obey the speed limits, stop completely at stop signs, and obey the rules of the road. It would have better reaction time than a human being, never lose its temper or fall asleep at the wheel. On the other hand, do you trust a self-directing vehicle on city streets?

Today there are monitoring devices you have installed on your car. They evaluate the driver’s style in exchange to a break of up to 25% on insurance. Dash cams are becoming common for recording video of driving in case the driver needs a record of events. A self-directed car would contain both.

Think of the impact of self-directed vehicles on business. Taxicab companies could eliminate the expensive driver. For courier companies, and pizza delivery the car would also require an autonomous robot that could move from the car to the door. Those are almost with us now.

You see the impact. IF taxicab drivers are out of a job, then so would bus drivers, truck drivers, pizza delivery drivers and couriers.

Now some of the drivers might be for transit buses. However, if the self-driving car takes the sting out of commuting, why would anyone ride the bus?

Ahh. The dreaded DUI. If cars drive themselves, then we become passengers. Would a person need a driver’s license to command such a car? What about the drunk? If they could take an automated cab, why not their own self-directed car?

Ouch. Imagine the congestion as everyone returns to private vehicles to commute to work. I see more parking lots in the core of the city once more.

That is where my imagination breaks down. I can the self-directed car following a GPS map to go from my home to my office. However, I can’t image how the car would handle the parking lot. And there’s no steering wheel.

So in the near future, you will no longer need a driver’s license.

Then there is the horror writer in me. Imagine all those self-directed cars on the highway. What if they become sentient? Or more mundane, what if their software update creates a problem?

“The Few”

While reviewing stories that I had previously sold, I stumbled onto this one. It is flash fiction, or a micros-story. I’ve written a few stories this short, and they are a challenge to an author. To create character, conflict, action, and back story that can be described in less than five hundred words, means that no fat is allowed.

Worse still, the story is sent during WWII, in London.

The Blitz

The Blitz (from German, “lightning”) was the period of sustained strategic bombing of the United Kingdom by Nazi Germany. Starting on 7 September 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed London for 57 consecutive nights. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed.

All that stood between the British cities and the German bombers were the pilots of the RAF fighter command. We are talking about less than three thousand men. During and after the blitz, a pilot couldn’t buy his own drink in London or much of England. The grateful public lauded them, and would treat them to a drink or a meal. Most of the pilots were young, with little expectation of living long. About 20% died in the conflict.

Winston Churchill said of them: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

What isn’t as well known is that the RAF fliers included men from other countries, and Poland led the pack. No. 303, Polish Fighter Squadron, was one of 16 Polish squadrons in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War. It was the highest scoring RAF squadron of the Battle of Britain.

So now that I have given you the setting,  here is the story:

The Phone Rang

When the telephone finally rang, Rosalie sobbed with relief. He was alive. He had called. She ran down the stairs to answer it, to tell Phillip all the promises she had made while waiting.

When Rosalie first met Phillip, he dazzled her with his smile and his pilot’s wings. After the battle of Britain any pilot in England had priority in seating anywhere, complimentary drinks and the best of everything. And the girls she’d had to fight off to keep him.

That he was handsome, with his blonde hair and high cheekbones made it worse. That he was hesitant in his English, which made him seem shy, added to the problem. She loved him with all her nineteen-year-old soul.

Her parents disapproved. She was too young to wed. The company she was keeping was too fast. Besides, after the war, he would just be another out of work hero.

“Medals don’t buy meals,” her father liked to say. “I saw that in the twenties. Now he’s a hero but once the war is over he’ll just be an out of work fly boy and a Polish one at that.”

The phone sounded its second ring.

“Damn these slippers,” Rosalie thought, kicking them off. “I’ll tell him I love him. I’ll marry him. We can live wherever he wants. I won’t try to change him. I won’t tell him not to fly.”

After the Battle of Britain, Phillip found a new form of flying that captured his soul. He began to fly Lysanders into France, landing in fields and taking off in four hundred yards. He delivered agents, carried supplies and picked up SOE agents. He flew at night in an unarmed plane, skipping over the hills or hiding in the clouds from German Messerschmitts.

It froze her heart with terror but he laughed at her fears, folded her into his arms and kissed her until she forgot she was a lady and molded herself to his body.

Would those planes take him away from her forever? She feared them more than other women. In her desperate battle to hold him close, she said the wrong things and lost him. They had fought yesterday, before his flight and he had stormed out of the house, not saying goodbye, not kissing her at all.

Then nothing. No calls. When she tried to call, national security silenced any response. Had he returned? Was he dead? If not, why hadn’t he called? Did he know what she was going through?

The phone had just finished its third ring when she picked up the receiver and said, “Phillip, I was wrong. Forgive me. I love you so much.”

The line was silent. No response. Was it dead?

“Hello?” she asked.

“I’m so sorry. I seem to have dialed the wrong phone number,” the stranger’s voice said.

I hope you liked it.

To see some of my short stories go to


William Shakespeare and his Time

These things you might not know about Shakespeare and his times.

The theaters were closed during lent. That gave Shakespeare a forty day break from acting and managing the company of actors.

Shakespeare was married at eighteen to a pregnant Anne Hathaway who was eight years his senior.

Love’s Labors won was written before 1598 and published by 1603, but no copies are known to have survived.

William Kempe specialized in comic roles. He was one of the original players in early dramas by William Shakespeare, and often the comic roles were written specifically for him.

Shakespeare’s play-write contemporaries were a wild bunch. Ben Johnson was arrested for killing a fellow actor named Gabriel Spencer in a duel. Thomas Kyd was arrested and tortured into giving evidence against Christopher Marlowe. Christopher Marlowe murdered in a lodging place in Deptford. It is believed that he was in a meeting with three Government agents, and that they were paid assassins.

Shakespeare did not invent the plots of his plays. Every wonder why so many of his comedies were set in Italy? He took his plots from stories by Italian writers such as Giovanni Boccaccio.

Shakespeare was commanded to write The Merry Wives of Windsor by Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see “Falstaff in love”. However, this story was first recorded one hundred years later.

One of Shakespeare’s relatives on his mother’s side, William Arden, was arrested for plotting against Queen Elizabeth I, imprisoned in the Tower of London and executed.

Although it was illegal to be a Catholic in Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Anglican Archdeacon, Richard Davies of Lichfield, who had known him wrote some time after Shakespeare’s death that he had been a Catholic.

Shakespeare never actually published any of his plays.

Between 1592 and 1594, all the theaters in London were closed because of the plague. Shakespeare used the time to write poetry.

I’ve written a short story called The Theater Conundrum which was published in Tales of Old.

To see some of my short stories go to

The Land of Poets and Rebels

Eire, Ireland. It has been the land of poets and rebels for more than a thousand years. Perhaps that is the reason that every generation has had its rebel songs. I want to talk about one such song, “My Dark Rosaleen”. You might know the words. It begins:

O MY Dark Rosaleen,
Do not sigh, do not weep!
The priests are on the ocean green,
They march along the deep.
There’s wine from the royal Pope,
Upon the ocean green;
And Spanish ale shall give you hope,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen!
For the complete text, go here.

Or you might remember hearing someone singing it. Here’s John McCormick:

Like most Irish I know the song. My father would sing it, along with a raft of others. Then I discovered the poem.
James Clarence Mangan wrote the poem which was published in The Nation in 1846. Actually, this was one of three translations of an older poem from Gaelic to English.

1846 was a beginning of the Great Famine that would see the sons and daughters of Erin leave or die in numbers beyond imagining. During the famine approximately one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.

Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. Records show during the period Ireland was exporting approximately thirty to fifty shiploads per day of food produce.

The 1690 Penal laws were still in effect. To speak of rebellion would bring death. The memory of the rebellions of 1798 and 1803 remained in the minds of the ruled and the rulers.

Mangan’s poem is a love song, a love song to the country that was not a nation. In this he was tapping into an older Gaelic poem ‘Róisín Dubh’.

Rosaleen translates as little Rose. The song is named after Róisín Dubh, probably one of the daughters of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone in the late 16th Century. The song is reputed to have originated in the camps of Red Hugh O’Donnell (1572 – 10 September 1602). He led a rebellion against the English from 1593 to 1603 which has been called the Nine Years War.

A more recent translation of this poem was created by Pádraig Pearse. He was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 and died before a firing squad on May 3, 1916. You can find that translation here:

So the song to the little dark Rose spans three hundred years and, two languages. At one end is Red Hugh O’Donnell, and on the other is Pádraig Pearse.

To hear the original in Gaelic: