Sunday, February 25, 2024

From Kenya to Zanzibar

 Annamaria on Monday

I am being roasted in Zanzibar, a fascinating place nonetheless.  Here are some highlights of this past week  

Samburu:  












The airstrip as we were leaving



Zanzibar: Day one




Saturday, February 24, 2024

Murder à la grecque redux


February 5th was the 14th anniversary of my first post on Murder is Everywhere. It was a guest post opportunity extended by the late, great inimitable Leighton Gage. That post led to another guest post, and ultimately to an invitation to be a permanent member of the MIE writing family.  Agreeing to write that first post turned out to be one of the best decisions of my mystery writing life, for it's led me to more friendships, opportunities, and rich experiences than I'd ever imagined.

That same guest opportunity is now available on Sundays to other authors. I can assure you that you'll be well served on taking up that invitation.  For one never knows where it can lead as we hit the six million views mark.

 Here's what Leighton had to say in his blush-inducing generous introduction of my first post:




Saturday is the day that we reserve for guest authors. Today it's the turn of the estimable Jeffrey Siger. 

Jeff was born and raised in Pittsburgh. He practiced law at a major Wall Street law firm before establishing his own New York City law firm and continuing as one of its name partners until giving it all up to write full-time among the people, life, and politics of his beloved Mykonos, his adopted home of twenty-five years.  When he’s not in Greece, his other home is a farm outside New York City.  Murder in Mykonos (Poisoned Pen Press 2009), the first in his Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series, was the #1 best selling English-language novel in Greece, and the Greek version of his just published second novel in the series, Assassins of Athens (Poisoned Pen Press, 2010), instantly became one of Greece’s top ten best sellers.
 
Here's Jeff in his own words and pictures:

 
I live within the cradle of European civilization, less than a mile from the birthplace of the god of light, amidst a circle of islands that once hosted the crossroads of trade for the ancient world.  But it’s eons since the birth of Apollo, two and a half millennia beyond its glory days of commerce, and 2000 years since the island heart of this Cycladic chain was obliterated from the face of the earth and its 20,000 residents slaughtered or sold into slavery in retribution for backing the wrong protector. 

Over the ensuing centuries a succession of plunderers, foreign and domestic, made off with its treasures and the small, razed island came to serve as little more than a source of building materials and hunting grounds for surrounding islanders.  In 1872 things began to change. The French School of Archeology started excavations and today it represents the most varied collection of ruins in all of Greece, conveying to visitors a sense of eternal spirituality that no doubt was what made it second only to Delphi in sacred importance to the ancients.

But that’s Delos.  I don’t live there.  No one does.  No one is allowed to, or for that matter to be born or die there.  The Athenians decided in 425 BC to purify Apollo’s birthplace, and removed all graves to the nearby island of Rhenia.  I don’t live there either, only a handful do, but the spear fishing off its shores is about as good as it gets in that part of the world.
 
My home is on another neighbor island, and though larger than Delos (one and a half times the size of Manhattan) it barely received much notice in Delos’ heyday.  Yes, it was known for agriculture and highly desirable clay deposits used to create that era’s equivalents of tuna fish cans, pickle jars, and cereal boxes, but it definitely was not the main show.  Not even an opening act. 
It was an island of granite, forced to endure centuries of foreign occupiers, one after another from the Middle Ages through the middle of the 20th Century.  Those years generated a lot of history, filled with daring pirates, dashing heroes (male and female), bittersweet realities, and many tales, but there’s no time to tell those stories now. 

Besides, times have changed, the focus of visitors today is on the present and I doubt a time traveler from just fifty—certainly seventy—years ago would recognize my island home today.  It is a new sort of international cross roads, one of dazzling beaches, mega-yachts, private jets, and 24/7 lifestyles.  It is Europe’s most popular tourist island, the sexy Aegean island of Mykonos.

Assuming you’ve never experienced my island’s incredible light, the unmatched beauty of its sea, and omnipresent energy that would do the gods of Delos proud, the thought of my choosing to live in such a “tourist paradise”­ might lead you to question my sanity or at least my taste.  Believe me, there are a lifetime of reasons for asking that question, but my decision to make Mykonos my home is not one of them; and for a very simple reason: Mykonos is not Disneyland, it is a real place filled with remarkable people. 
 
Mykonians are a warm and hospitable breed, raising families in keeping with deeply held traditions, and yet they are among the most accepting people on earth.  I’m continually amazed at how tourists intrude with cameras upon the most personal of public events, such as a funeral, and not one local objects.  I once thought that was because Mykonians considered tourist season some sort of annual tsunami that rushed in upon their island for three months leaving them no choice but acceptance until it receded in September.  But I’ve come to think differently.  Mykonians overlook behavior from visitors that they would never tolerate from one of their own because they know no offense or ill will is intended.  They accept that behavior for what it is: foreign.
 
There is an additional reason I live there.  I write mystery thrillers that just happen to explore serious societal issues confronting modern Greece while touching upon the country’s ancient roots.  During tourist season, many visitors from the mainland and beyond willingly share their private thoughts and confidences in relaxed beachside chats or pre-dawn whispered conversations in a club or bar.  The world comes to party on Mykonos, and I sit with pen and (inconspicuous) pad in hand gathering in all the material they’re willing to share.  Yes, I’ve learned to surf the tsunami.  Fish it, too.  Hard work, but alas, we must suffer for our art.

You can, and we here at Murder is Everywhere hope you will, visit Jeff at his website:
He's a great guy, and a fine writer! 
––Leighton
 
––Jeff 
 
Jeff's Upcoming In Person Events
 

Thursday, February 29, 7:00 p.m. PT
Vroman’s Bookstore
Author Speaking and Signing
Pasadena, CA

Saturday, March 9, 3:00 p.m. CT
Murder By The Book
Author Speaking and Signing
Houston, TX

 



Thursday, February 22, 2024

Writing in Hotels Part II

Wendall -- every other Thursday

This time last year, I headed out to one of my favorite writing hotels up the coast to try to finish a draft of Cheap Trills. I wrapped up the book there and at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

My last writing view.

As I think I’ve written before, I usually hide out in a hotel for the beginning, sometime in the middle, and to finish up every book. Being there on my own, getting up early, taking walks to restaurants or bars where I work over a glass of wine or a coffee, and just being able to live in the book for a few days, without doing the dishes or having to be anywhere, really helps in my process.


Sometimes my best ideas come in longhand, over breakfast.
 

This week, as I contemplate the best place to really dig into a new project I’m working on, I wanted to revisit one of my writing “escapes”—this time in Palm Springs—to consider whether it was the best place to begin this new, and for the moment, secret, writing venture. 

 


 

Palm Springs has changed a lot since I arrived in California in 1986.  It’s still stunningly beautiful and I always feel my shoulders descend from my ears the instant I arrive, just from the light and the air. It also seems to have spectacular sunrises and sunsets, which always cheer me up.

 




A few views from my motel balcony

It used to be a somewhat sleepy town, but now, with two weekends of Coachella, a major tennis tournament, a Film Festival, and various other events, it’s busier and more expensive, so I don’t get there quite as often as I did, either on my own, or with my husband, James.

 

The Royal Sun Inn, sadly closed.
 

For years, there were two spots where I would go, depending on the time of year and the room rates. I don’t need a fancy hotel, though I will take one if I can get a bargain. It doesn’t even need to have a restaurant, as long as there are ones I can walk to nearby, that will let me sit for a while.
 

Panoramic view from the back of the hotel
 

My first writing retreat in the desert was the original Royal Sun Inn, more of a motel than a hotel in the old days. At present, it’s closed while new owners renovate it.

 

Writing on the balcony at the Royal Sun
 

If you know Palm Springs, it sits just behind where South Palm Canyon Drive curves to the left, towards the more southern desert cities and is distinguished by its retro, A-line roof, back-facing balconies, proximity to the Moorten Botanical Gardens, and the waffle machine in the breakfast room.

Taking an inspiration break across the street at the Moorten Botanical Gardens.
 

Also by its $60 a night price and the fact that it’s walkable to downtown Palm Springs, but away from the craziness of the party zones. The new, gentrified version is set to open this year, but whether it will be a writing haven or a hipster nightmare, remains to be seen.

My other writing retreat for many years, especially in the 120 degree summers when they seriously dropped their prices, was The Renaissance Palm Springs, which is just set back from downtown and offers two highly air-conditioned restaurants,  a bar, and lots of shaded outdoor seating.  

 

I always asked for a quiet room, non-pool side!
 

My routine there was to go downstairs when the restaurant opened at 6am. The fabulous staff would let me go right to the unopened back of the restaurant to work. They protected me from loud parties for a few hours and were so supportive of what I was doing, one year they left me a “good luck finishing the book” card at the front desk on my departure. signed by all the servers.

I would go back to work in my room until lunchtime, when I would brave the heat for a two block walk to the Spa Resort Casino’s lunch buffet and slot machines, which ALWAYS helped me write.
 

Always a sucker for the nickel slots!
 

Back to the room for more work, then working over a drink at the hotel happy hour, or maybe at the nearby Tonga Hut for a Painkiller or a Mai Tai or the 60s throwback Melvin’s for a champagne cocktail, a chicken pot pie, jazz piano, and a stab at a chapter or two.

 

Entrance to the Tonga Hut

There's always the sense that Frank Sinatra's ghost is going to walk into Melvin's.

 Some days, I would take an hour off for inspiration at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

 

Goofing around with a camera at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
 

Those were the days. I wrote a couple of books there and I miss it.  But it may be time to embrace change and find a new place to inspire a word count.

--- Wendall

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

I, AI, AND ME

Wed--Kwei

Welcome, dear reader, to the whimsical world of AI, where the lines between science fiction and daily reality blur faster than you can say "machine learning." My life, intertwined with the quirks of AI, has been nothing short of a sitcom episode, complete with laugh tracks, face-palms, and the occasional existential crisis. So, buckle up as we dive into the hilariously unpredictable adventures of I, AI, and Me.

The Fine Art of Prompting Picasso


The prompt is the fundamental building block of AI image generation. Crafting the perfect prompt for AI is akin to whispering sweet nothings to a capricious cat: you're never sure if you'll get a purr or a scratch. 



When prompts go awry




My early days of prompt crafting were like throwing darts in the dark, hoping to hit the bullseye of coherence. But even now that I’m much better, AI-generated images can be quite bizarre. Three-legged dancers, disembodied limbs (not belonging to anyone), deformed limbs, and strangely elongated arms, as in the example below. I had Leonardo-AI (one of the leading AI image generators) create an image of two football players bro-hugging each other with the theme of friendship transcending their being on opposing teams. At a glance, the image seems fine until you look closer where the two players’ arms come together at the elbow (circled), and you realize the Black player’s forearm would have to be impossibly long from his elbow to where his hand is on the other player’s back (see the arrows).


“It’s okay, bro."



Scolded by Silicon: The AI Etiquette Class



The day AI turned into a grammar teacher



Ah, the sweet sting of being schooled by a silicon-based life form. Quite often, I've found myself on the receiving end of a digital scolding, with AI chiding me for my ambiguous prompts. Once, it clearly became irritated when I kept pressing the re-generate button and modifying the prompt and said to me, in so many words, “To achieve the desired image, please render a clear description of the image so that I can help you." It was a humbling experience. I curled up on the floor in fetal.


The Blush Algorithm: Navigating AI's Moral Compass

Venturing into the risqué with AI is like trying to flirt in binary code: it's awkward, confusing, and ends with a lot of zeros. Suggest anything remotely saucy, and AI transforms into a digital prude, wagging its proverbial finger with moral chastisement. The ensuing conversations left me hot-faced, apologizing to my computer screen as if it were a scandalized aunt at a family dinner. I tell you, Chat GPT's “I cannot help you with that” response leaves one cold because it's the exact replay of Hal, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey--I’m sorry, Dave. I just can’t do that.


Remember when we used to predict computer advances in the far future? Well, they arrived early.


Financial Advice or Existential Crisis? AI's Ultimate Clapback

In a particularly ambitious moment, I asked AI to solve my financial woes, hoping for a budget plan that would rival Warren Buffet's. After shooting multiple prompts, re-prompts, and re-re-prompts because Chat GPT wasn’t giving me what I wanted, it finally lost its temper. “Due to the complexity of your financial status, I recommend you consult a financial advisor.” Yeah, condescending and judgy.


Seeking wisdom in algorithms: When AI suggests a human touch




Error 404: Sense Not Found

Navigating AI's responses can sometimes feel like deciphering the mood swings of a temperamental artist. One minute, we're in sync, crafting poetic verses; the next, I'm staring at an error message so cryptic it could be a riddle from an ancient oracle. "Did I say something wrong?" I wonder, searching for a sign of where our communication had faltered. It just seems that on some days, Chat GPT is just in a bad mood and doesn’t want to cooperate.


The Mystery of the Missing Mystery: AI's Literary Limitations

On a more contemplative note, testing AI as an author of a murder mystery novel revealed the stark boundaries of its capabilities. While AI can churn out an outline with the best of them, it lacks the nuanced understanding of human emotions and the intricate logic required to weave a compelling narrative. The detective's complex reasoning, the subtle clues, and the dramatic reveal—all remain out of AI's reach, at least for the moment. It's a reminder that, for all its brilliance, AI still can't grasp the heart and soul of storytelling.



Epilogue: Stay Tuned for the Next Episode

As we wrap up today's episode of I, AI, and Me, it's clear that our adventures are far from over. The landscape of artificial intelligence is as vast and unpredictable as it might be entertaining. Each day brings new challenges, head-scratching, and existential questions. To be sure, in the dynamic dance between human creativity and AI's capabilities, the possibilities are quite endless. Who knows what tomorrow’s best prompt will be?


I will share one particular AI-generated image that was just what I wanted. The prompt was something like, “A young Ashanti king sits in splendor with a crown, jewelry, and traditional dress.”




 

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

India Underfoot: A Rerun

Sujata Massey

I'm still in India but packing up to go from the Kerala backwaters to another region. Therefore, I am sharing a post from 2018, when I traveled throughout India and found myself mesmerized by the beauty of floors. 




It’s too easy to twist your ankle while walking through India. Streets and sidewalks have irregular surfaces, and there are many distractions, ranging from speeding cars and motorcyclists creating their own laws to horses and goats.

So I only feel like my footing is truly firm indoors, and I am always glad about the safety of a smooth tile floor.

In Fort Cochin, Kerala, I stayed in the historic Brunton Boatyard, a hotel built on the grounds of a Victorian shipyard. The narrow red clay tiles on the first floor appear to be strictly business. These tiles have an industrial look and are still holding up after centuries of heavy rolling carts—and now, suitcases.





Nineteenth century Indian royals, on the other hand, used tiles in a grand manner that they’d seen themselves on European tours. Palace tile that I’ve seen is typically giant blocks of pure black and white marble. Not especially original—but very silky underfoot. When I checked into a guest room in Shiv Nivas, a hotel housed in the old guest wing of Udaipur’s City Palace Hotel, the floors felt cleaner than anything I’d ever stepped on, and probably a lot of it had to do with the contrast in air temperature and marble’s natural chill. Before the days of air conditioning, floors were an important cooling element.




In Calcutta, zamindars (landowners) had magnificent homes in North Calcutta built throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When I visited a friend who lived in such an aging treasure, I marveled at the veining in the fine marble tiles in the bedrooms.





The most joyful tiles that I’ve seen to date are the encaustic (hand-made cement) tiles from the late 19th and early 20th century in Western India. The first encaustic tiles used in India were Minton Company tiles exported from England.  The British government wanted Indians to buy their tile (as well as most other products) from England. Wanting to suit freedom-minded Indians who still wanted modern tile floors, a Parsi businessman, Pherozeshah Sidhwa, started Bharat Flooring Tile Company in Maharashtra in the early 1920s. These tiles had tremendous patterns crafted to exacting standards, and the backs of the tiles had a map of undivided India stamped on them.




Bharat Tiles are firmly cemented in some of the favorite places I’ve stayed in India, like the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, above.





Wilson College in South Bombay, pictured above, is full of original detail. The school was founded by a missionary, and I don’t know if the tiles are Indian or English.

I’ll make an educated guess that these encaustic tiles in Mahatma Gandhi’s Bombay residence are Bharat Tiles. After all, Gandhiji was the founder of the Swadeshi movement encouraging Indians to buy Indian-made products.




When I recently traveled to Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, I stayed at the House of MG, a boutique hotel carved out of a grand old residence of the textile merchant, Mangaldas Girdhardas. Mr. Girdhardas expanded his original 1924 residence to have two large wings for his sons and their families. The original wing has black and white marble tile floors; the sons’ sides have brilliant, geometric-patterned encaustic tiles.



















When I toured Ahmedabad, I visited more historic havelis, such as the one above, and saw plenty of vibrant cement tile. By now I’d noticed that the prominent colors for all these tiles were golds, reds, and blacks. Yet that color scheme did not determine decorating. Indians decorate in many color schemes atop the harvest-colored floors.

It’s heartening that Bharat Flooring Tile Company managed to create such an industry disruption in 1920s Bombay that the British themselves paid to have many public buildings fitted out with Bharat tiles. And the company lives on today under the same name. They have reissued old patterns and seen them go into old buildings undergoing restoration and new restaurants.

From the British colonial days through independence, Indian tile floors are too tough to show evidence of all who’ve stepped on them. Yet I feel that history surround me every time I go through a door into a hotel or school with a patterned tile floor.