Monday, January 17, 2022

Murder is Everywhere in the Metaverse

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

I just created my first NFT!

Why? In an attempt to start off this year as an informed person, I attended a breakfast convention (with health checks, masks and social distanced seating) on what we can expect in 2022.

The best part was Kishore Mahbubani quoting an Arab proverb, ‘he who predicts the future lies, even when he tells the truth’.

That’s pretty much the last thing I understood though I did pick up something about NFTs (?) in the metaverse (?) replacing copyrights… 

As I understand it, an NFT or ‘non-fungible token’ is a record of who owns a unique piece of digital content. As long as something is digital and was created, it can be an NFT. Selling an NFT is like selling a license to use something you write, draw or otherwise create. You retain copyright and if the NFT you sell gets resold, you get paid 10% on subsequent sales.

It sounds like it should be a good thing, but made me very uncomfortable.

I don’t know if that's because this is how stone chiselers felt about calligraphers, how leather tanners felt about paper makers, how all of them felt about Johannes Gutenberg… (another time I'd like to write about Choe Yun-ui and his movable type frames 200 years before Gutenberg but with practically no lasting impact) or whether we’re being offered the latest Kool Aid?

So I decided to make an NFT and write this post about the process, because 
1) the best way to figure out something is to do it 
2) a deadline is my best motivation.

Step 1: I made this collage of all of us. Now it's digital, but how can I sell it as an NFT?

I need to choose a Gateway.

Gateways seem to be the department stores of the metaverse. 
Some I found are: Christie’s, Super Rare, Foundation, Nifty Gateway, Rarible, Mintable… but OpenSea claims to be largest with over 200 categories and 4 million items. I’m going by crowd wisdom this time.

This is the OpenSea landing page.

But now I find I need to create a digital wallet in order to sign into OpenSea. 

Step2: Getting a Digital Wallet

On a recommendation from OpenSea, I Googled, downloaded and installed a Chrome extension called MetaMask. 

Once there, following the instructions that came with Clicking on Create A Wallet was easy and the ‘secret recovery phrase’ (no, I’m not posting a shot of that here) makes me feel pretty safe and secure despite warnings that if I lose my recovery phrase, even their staff won’t be able to retrieve the Ether (which at the moment is zero) in my wallet. 

Step3: Back to OpenSea
Back at OpenSea, setting up an account was easy as OpenSea detected my MetaMask wallet as my ID. All I had to do was click on My Profile and respond to prompts. There’s an email confirmation to click on and I’m in!

Step 4: Creating my first NFT!
There’s a host of exciting stuff to look into—but right now I want to create my first NFT—and here it is! 

Clicking on ’Sell’ brought up options of selling at a Fixed Price or via a Timed Auction or in a collection with other creations. Since I’ve no idea what’s a good price and don’t have any other creations, I chose Timed Auction.

Step 5: $$$ or rather ETH

Up till this point, setting up everything was free, but to set up an auction I need to pay a one-time transaction fee called a ‘gas fee’ in ETH.

Google tells me Ether (or ETH, or units in the Ethereum blockchain) is the main currency in the metaverse. 

Also: WETH stands for Wrapped ETH because apparently Ether needs to be Wrapped before it can be used. There’s no packaging charge though—1 ETH is worth 1 WETH. 

I bought my ETH via MoonPay using my Visa card (I could also have used PayPal) by clicking Wyre on my MetaMask wallet. 

(Please click on the links to take a look--it doesn't cost anything and is just a way in so you can take a look around without setting up an account. Like so many other things, the Metaverse is less intimidating up close)

I've set the timed auction to run for a week. This way, I can write about how it turns out in my next post but one (because I’m saving my next post for Chinese New Year). 

Even if no one buys my first NFT I’m feeling really pleased with myself for having created it! I actually have an NFT out in the Metaverse!

So please come back on the 3rd Tuesday of February if you’d like to see how this works out. Or doesn’t.

Pablo Escobar’s Hippos

Annamaria on Monday


Last month, MIchael brought up a topic that is tailor-made for the likes of me. It links the history of arguably the most successful criminal ever with South America and Africa. It sent me to research and find out more. So here is my expansion on his fascinating post about cocaine hippos.


The Bad Guy


Though Pablo Escobar only lived to the age of 44, through crime he became one of the richest men in the world.  Like many other college dropouts, he started small, in his case selling illegal cigarettes, stealing cars, and counterfeiting lottery tickets.  Before he was done, he had a worldwide distribution system for his monthly shipments of 70 to 80 tons of cocaine out of Colombia.  His exports went pretty much everywhere.  He also massacred rivals, police officers, judges, people who just happen to live nearby, and politicians. For a while he became a politician himself and ran for office as a member of the Chamber of Representatives.  When he was shot by the police in 1993, his net worth was estimated to be $30 billion. The equivalent today would be $64 billion.


In this blog, though, we are going to focus on one of his minor crimes, the one Michael brought up. Once Escobar was established on his 20 km2 (7.7mi.²estate in Colombia, he broke a law by importing around 200 animals from all over the world for his private zoo. Among them, were four hippopotamuses – one male and 3 females.  After his death, the other animals were distributed to zoos all over Colombia. Because moving even one hippo is a major endeavor, the big beasts were left in the river where they were. The killer left behind a time bomb.



Africans in South America


In their native Africa, the hippo population is controlled by their natural predators and the local climate. The predators of course keep the population down by eating some of them.  But also, because their habitat in Africa is subject to periodic drought, the fluctuating food supply limits their population growth.

Those hippos that Escobar had brought into the country have no such enemies.  And its rich food supply has lowered the age of reproduction, boosting their birthrate.  By 2007, there were 16.   In 2019, there were between 90 and 120.  Estimates are that within a decade they will have spread to an area of 13,500 km² (5200 mi.²)  Left to their own devices, they will be out of control in less than 20 years.

Because they have the potential to change the ecosystem, conservationists consider them an invasive as a species.  They threaten the manatee already in danger of extinction, as well as the local otters and turtles and the endangered fisheries of the River Magdalena. Because they eat on land and poop in the water, they increase aqueous nutrients that can cause toxic algae blooms and kill off aquatic fauna.


When an ecological invader is a plant, the solution is to weed it out.  Not so easy with a critter that can weigh up to five tons and be very aggressive.

A simple expedient to get rid of them would be hunting.  Only one has been shot so far.  His name was Pepe, a hippo who chased and badly injured a local farmer. The army went in with two German hunters, who killed him.  Photos of the event in the news elicited a huge outcry from animal rights groups within Colombia and around the world.  And a flood of objections from those involved in local Echo tourism, for whom the "cute" hippos were a draw.

A splinter group of conservations posited that the hippos should be allowed to multiply.  There had been huge herbivores in that area in the Pleistocene age. Since they believe in “rewilding,” they feel that the imported African species could contribute to an outcome they consider desirable.  Mainstream ecologists reject this idea.  Still, those in favor of clearing out the hippos have become the target of abuse and death threats.

With shooting now off the table, those trying to avoid catastrophe have been seeking ways to limit the fertility of the big beasts.  They tried surgery on one male, which involved capturing, anesthetizing, castrating, and then releasing a creature of about 6000 pounds. It worked, but it cost a little over $50,000. Certainly, that was not the answer.  These days, they are using chemical castration.  The hope is that this technique will limit the population and forestall the future disruptive effects of the invaders.


                               Annamaria with her favorite hippo in Rome

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Sashimi, From Another Point of View

 --Susan, every other Sunday

While many people outside Japan (and some who live here, too) use the terms sushi and sashimi interchangeably, they're actually quite different. Sashimi (刺身) translates "pierced body," and refers to sliced meat or fish presented over or beside a garnish. 

Sashimi at Marukoma Ryokan, Hokkaido

By contrast, sushi refers to vinegared rice served with (often topped by) other ingredients, which can (and often does) include raw fish. Traditionally, sushi was much larger than it is today, and was sold from carts as a quick, mobile meal for workers.

A display of traditional Edo-period sushi (Edo-Tokyo Museum)

Edo-period woodblock print of sushi stands near Edo harbor

Since I'm allergic to fish, most sushi is problematic--not only because the rice is often topped with fish, but because some restaurants use bonito-based dashi (soup stock) when preparing the vinegared rice.

That said, and as counterintuitive as it might seem, I usually can eat sashimi--which is good, because it's one of the most important courses in a traditional Japanese kaiseki meal.

Because the identifying characteristics of sashimi are (1) thinly-sliced food, served raw and cold, and (2)  a beautiful garnish, Japanese chefs riff widely on the theme, even when they're not accommodating an allergy. 

The offerings range from the highly traditional:

Turbo Snail Sashimi (Wakayama Prefecture)

Basashi (horsemeat sashimi - Kaida Plateau, Kiso, Nagano Prefecture)

Prawn and scallop sashimi (Iwate Prefecture)

To modern:

Konjac vegetarian sashimi, Ryokan Iwaso (Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture)

Yuba Sashimi - KAI Kinugawa (Kinugawa Onsen, Tochigi Prefecture)

Avocado and Yuba (tofu skin) sashimi, Ryokan Iwaso (Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture)

Vegetarian sashimi--like the versions shown above, is not uncommon; in fact, Buddhist temples have been serving vegan versions of sashimi as part of shojin ryori (Buddhist temple cuisine) for thousands of years: 

Konjac sashimi - Ekoin Temple, Koyasan

Mixed sashimi - Ekoin temple, Koyasan (Wakayama Prefecture)

Despite knowing that sashimi had deep roots in Japanese culinary history, I'd never eaten it before coming to Japan, in part because the varieties available in the United States generally involve raw fish. The range of sashimi available in Japan makes it far easier to taste and enjoy--not only for allergy reasons but also because it's more approachable for people who might not be quite ready to dive in and eat the fish-based kinds.

That said, I'll admit the snail was more than a little challenging (and doesn't get better, at least for me, even though I've eaten it more than once), and the idea of eating horses is off-putting for many people too (there's a story behind why I like it, which I'll share at a different time). I haven't met anyone yet who objected to vegetables, though, and yuba sashimi has even converted some non-tofu eaters I know into yuba fans.

Taste aside, sashimi is food elevated to an art, in terms of execution and presentation as well as taste--and usually as beautiful to behold as it is to eat.

Celebration sashimi, Nishimuraya Honkan, Kinosaki Onsen, Hyogo Prefecture

To answer a couple of last, unspoken questions: Yes, I did take all of the pictures and eat all of the dishes pictured in this post--and No, I don't have a favorite among them. With the exception of the snail (for which "challenging" is putting it mildly) I enjoyed them all immensely.

Now I'd like to know: which one would you most like to try?

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Inspiration, Frustration, and Triumph




An author I deeply admire recently posted elsewhere about the influence his subconscious has on whether a work in progress is headed in the right direction, and how often a novel that begins with spectacular promise, fades off into oblivion at around short story length.  From the replies to his post, I think many authors share that experience–especially these days.


After all, in pandemic times it’s difficult to bring full creative power to bear while your subconscious is continuously running a fight or flight survival loop in the background.  To that extent, we’re no different than prehistoric man whose mind was far too preoccupied with what predator was intent on having him for (not over for) dinner, to give serious thought to redecorating the cave.


Personally, I find it difficult to write without my muse nearby…by that I mean Greece. Yes, I made it over there for seven weeks this summer, but that’s not nearly enough time for me to gain the immersive perspective I seek in creating a new locale for a story.  Place for me—as for all of us at MIE–is seminal to our work, and not something lending itself to compromise. 

Luckily, I’m familiar with enough heavenly (and hellish) places in Greece to keep Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis on duty, but stories set in some magical venues I’d like him to visit will just have to wait out the pandemic. One must play the hand you’re dealt—or kick over the table and face the consequences.


On a more upbeat note, I’m honored to share my achieving a childhood bucket list moment.


I grew up in working class Pittsburgh, where a Reader’s Digest magazine was always to be found lying somewhere around the house, and most assuredly in every doctor’s and dentist’s office.

The big kahuna for Reader’s Digest fans was the bi-monthly hardcover collection of four abridged novels, first published as “Reader’s Digest Condensed Books” in 1950, and since 1997 as “Reader’s Digest Select Editions.” Whenever I saw one of those anthologies, the authors whose names appeared on the binding appeared like gods to me.


To see my name this month on the cover of Select Editions #383 as the author of A Deadly Twist (Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis #11), has me feeling as if my game jersey is about to hang in the rafters alongside some of my writing idols.


Undoubtedly, there are far greater triumphs to achieve in the writing life, but for me, this is a childhood-dream-come-true moment.  One to relish and savor in these times.

Congratulations to my fellow cover mates, William Kent Krueger, Mia P. Manansala, and Freya Sampson, and sincere thanks to all who made this possible.



Thursday, January 13, 2022

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Stanley - Thursday

Like everyone I know, I'm sick and tired of the pandemic, the trauma it's brought to so many families, and the idiocy it has encouraged to surface. So I decided to push back and show how life is going on near the source of the damned omicron variant - Cape Town. My blog for today was going to be about one iconic Cape Town tourist attraction, namely paragliding from Signal Hill over the houses and apartment buildings of Sea Point onto the beautiful Esplanade along Table Bay.

I was up at 0600, then, coffee cup in hand, headed to the launch point high above the Sea Point buildings.  A beautiful day: 20C (about 70F), barely a cloud in the sky, and a gorgeous drive below the striking Lion's Head mountain that soars over 650 metres (2100 feet) above the city. A perfect day for the adventure of a lifetime - not that I was going to parasail, rather I was going to watch others do it and relish the fact that life was returning to normal.

The drive from my flat to the launch point

Three of the Twelve Apostles, which line up behind Table Mountain

At the top of the Kloof Road forest, I popped into the sun with Table Mountain looming nearly 1100 metres (3600 feet) in front of me.

Table Mountain with Devil's Peak to the left.

I continued driving below Lion's Head until I reached the launch point. Spectacular views!

Lion's Head

Table Mountain National Park motto

I wandered over to the launching area, a specially-prepared permanent runway for paragliders.

The rather daunting view down. Gliders fly over these buildings and land on that thin strip of grass on the other side. Wet if you go too far; not good if you land short.

I was ready! 

However, I was surprised that there were only a few glider operators sitting under the trees, with a few anxious first-timers nervously chatting to each other. Then I looked up and saw the windsock.

The wind was from the wrong direction - southwest instead of west or northwest. That meant there was a tailwind, which makes it impossible to lift the wing before take-off. No wonder everyone was sitting down. Waiting for the wind to shift. 

After an hour and a half, I decided it was time to leave. So I did and went for a walk in the beautiful Greenpoint Park with its banks of blue agapanthus plants.

So, I will return to the launch point to chronicle the famous Cape Town paragliding when the wind is favourable. Meantime I'll enjoy seeing life slowly returning to some semblance of normality.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

When a Book Needs a New Home

 Sujata Massey

Have you ever thought about what happens to a particular book after it's been read? Does it settle into a gentle slumber on a shelf, or a haphazard spot on the floor?  How will it continue to do its work? 

I love having a house full of books; in the butler's pantry, dining room, living room, all bedrooms, sunroom, and study. Yet even though I have space, it's not enough, nor is it right for me to store them with limited or no future use. 

Necessity forced me to shed books shortly after I'd finished college. After five happy years working at the Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper--acquiring many novels for pleasure reading--I was moving to Japan with my husband. I was thrilled. I also knew the four hundred or so books packed into my worn-out IKEA bookcases would sink the shipping allowance the Navy had provided. So, I took a deep breath and whittled down my collection. I took four boxes to Japan, and these books were a great comfort and inspiration. 

My husband and I returned to the US with a few more books I'd bought in Japan. And in the three decades since coming back, we have moved house six times! And with every move, I learned to give away books, no matter how dear they were to me when I used them.

The pandemic that began in 2020 led a lot of us to clear clutter out of their homes, including books. As soon as we were in official lockdown in March, 2020, I felt called to examine the thousand plus books that had slowly crept into my home. The challenge was that it was hard to bring donations to the usual spots during the pandemic, since they were also locked down,

Hopes rose when I heard about the Maryland Book Bank. This grassroots book hub sounded like perfection: a warehouse site a few miles from my house with an open-door policy of taking all books and no-contact drop-off. That particular day I brought my books, it was raining heavily. I was anxious leaving my boxes of books beside the loading dock's series of dumpsters that were already overwhelmed with print. 

But I let those books go, and my house became a little less cluttered.


As we all know, the pandemic continued past the spring of 2020.  During the early autumn of  2021, I had the energy to examine my bookcases again, and withdrew about sixty more books from hibernation. During my neighborhood walks, I had often passed some curious structures shaped like child-drawn houses on stilts.  These cabinets, bearing labels that called them "Little Free Libraries," were packed with donated books. The sign on the cabinet was inviting. “Leave a Book, Take a Book.”  And I thought…maybe this is another donation solution?


Ednor Gardens neighborhood

I went to the website for Little Free Library  and learned about the history of these intriguing cabinets, which began in 2012 when a Wisconsin man named Ted H. Bol built the first Little Free Library in honor of his late mother. The idea of “Take a Book, Give a Book,” caught on and became very popular in Wisconsin’s neighbor state, Minnesota, where the nonprofit now is headquartered. Today LFLs are common inside and outside of homes, businesses, and community centers in every state of the U.S. and more than 100 countries. And every book-box that stands is only there because of a specific person who sets it up and maintains it.


Most LFL structures have two shelves and they are not tall or wide. The LFLs can fill up fast, especially in bookish neighborhoods. I started off donating books to the LFL near a church two blocks from my home, but it was always packed to overflowing. There was no way I could pack in seventy books.


I also yearned to bring books to areas that didn't have the same overwhelm as my neighborhood. . I did more reading on the LFL website and learned that Little Free Libraries in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods didn't get regular drop-offs. They also didn't have many books that featured diverse people and settings.  I packed up my car with works by the likes of S.A. Cosby, Kwei Quartey, Vivien Chin, Jesmyn Ward, and so many others. 

East 25th Street

The first LFL I visited on East 25th Street in Baltimore was near a community center. The wooden cabinet was cheerfully painted in red and yellow and had a garden on its roof. What was missing was a clear plexiglass door to shield books from rain. That made it look vulnerable. Nothing was inside the library, except for two school supply bags and a bottle of cooking oil. 

I slid in a donation of teenage and adult fiction by authors of color, or set in various parts of the world. A few months later I returned, happy to find the books I’d brought had all found takers. There was ample room for the extra books and school supplies I'd carried with me. 

The Abell Open Space

North Charles Street

Belvedere Square


Since that first expedition, I’ve donated at many other Little Free Libraries around the Baltimore, most of them found with the help of the online mapping tool at the LFL website. And this activity of purging and sharing doesn’t mean I’m reading less. Writing historical fiction makes it essential to hunt down books that might be out of print for the sake of research. I also continue buying books to support authors who are launching or continuing careers during a time that there are few opportunities for in-person book signings.  

Bellona-Gittings Neighborhood


Recently, I decided to research Sophia Duleep Singh, the“suffragette princess” who was an activist in India and Britain during the Edwardian period. Sophia, a biography written by Anita Anand in 2015, was out of print. However, Amazon listed a hardcover edition as being available for mail order from a used-book seller at a very low price. Amazingly, the seller of this former library book was…

The Maryland Book Bank! Yes, the very first place I'd gone on the odyssey with my books.