Saturday, September 21, 2019

An Ode to Environmentalists


Who among us has not heard at least part of Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained” speech in Act IV, Scene 1, of William Shakespeare’s, The Merchant of Venice? It may be his most well known speech.  At least up until now, when my parody will no doubt supplant it.

All of this was inspired by two articles I read Friday morning in The New York Times. The first reported that three billion (29%) of North American birds have vanished over the past fifty years.  The second described “monumental climate protests” spanning the globe.

When I thought about what to write, those subjects hit me as the obvious choice, but how to do so was the question. I’ve been re-reading Shakespeare recently and wondered what I could “borrow” from the Bard to make my point. Then it hit me, like a flowerpot off Juliet’s balcony.

[N.B. Before “certain folks” point out to me that a monarch is a butterfly, not a bird, and mercury isn't the central villain, it just works better this way, so live with it. :)] 

Here it is … with my sincerest apologies to Billy … followed by his original.

The toxicity of mercury is not constrained;
It droppeth in the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the face beneath. It is twice pest;
It pests him that gives and them that takes:
'T is mightiest in the flightiest; it succumbs
The winged monarch faster than a frown:
Its spectre shows the farce of temporal power,
That contributes with saw and fantasy,
To wearing down the spread and soar of wings;
Though mercury is behind this horrid sway;
It and its like provide the funds for kings,
It is an attribute to Greed itself;
And earthly power doth then show slightest nods
When money seasons justice. Therefore, You,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, if in seeking justice, none of us
Should glimpse salvation: do not pray for mercy;
For while you pray, others tear all asunder,
Feigning deeds of mercy that are not such.
You must find stronger ways to make thy plea;
That man not allow courtiers of menace
To sentence death to all God’s creatures here.

The Original Version

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.


My Upcoming Events

Saturday, November 2, 4:00-5:00 PM
Dallas, TX
BOUCHERCON–Hyatt Regency Dallas, Room - Reunion C
Moderating, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” with Joe Clifford, Laura McHugh, Hannah McKinnon, Lissa Marie Redmond, and Scott Von Doviak

Sunday, November 3, 8:30-9:30 AM
Dallas, TX
BOUCHERCON –Hyatt Regency Dallas, Room - Reunion E
Panelist, “Detectives Overseas” with Ian Hamilton, Ragnar Jonasson, Michael Sears, and Stanley Trollip, moderated by Nancy Tingley

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Channel Challenge

So what did you do this morning? Take the dog for a walk? Put out the bins? Go to the gym for a quick run and a bacon sarnie?

As some of you know, I have been doing the swim the channel challenge. Here a swimmer signs up to swim 22.3 miles within a month, that’s the width of the channel according to the charity.   That’s 2213 lengths of my local pool. So doing a mile is 100 lengths exactly, but with all those turns, it’s a bit like being in a tumble dryer.

But that’s nothing to Sarah Thomas who became the first person to swim across the Channel four times non-stop. The 37 year old arrived in Dover at about 6.30am Tuesday morning after setting off at midnight on Sunday. She felt "really tired" afterwards. Quietly, she announced that she was dedicating the swim to all cancer survivors as she herself had undergone treatment for breast cancer last year…and the treatment programme had interrupted her training. The 4 crossing swim as mapped is 84 miles, but she swam more than 130 miles due to the currents and tides.

The worst bit (the hypothermia and SIPES are known factors so provided for) is dealing with days of salt water in the mouth, it stings the throat and the tongue. Then there’s the jellyfish!

She first swam across the Channel in 2012 and then again in 2016.  "As I was doing 20 mile swims, it occurred to me that I could do more and I wanted to see what that more was."

Four swimmers have crossed the Channel three times without stopping.

There’s a whole channel swim sub culture out there. Here are some facts if you fancy it.

1)            Rules permit a cap, goggles, and a swimsuit.

2)            Swimmers consume recovery protein drink mixed with electrolytes and a little bit of caffeine to help offset sleepiness, on a rope, in paper cups that the pilot boat retrieves.

3)            Tides - mean spring speed of 3.4 knots/hour, mean neap speed of 1.9 knots. So you can be taken up and down the coast at (7.5km/hour) in a spring tide causing a huge arc in the course.

4)            The water is cold.  13°C to 17°C. Hypothermia accounts for a large % of the unsuccessful attempts, too cold for 10 to 20 hours

5)            Swimmers have a tow float so they remain visible.

6)            To qualify, swimmers must have swam open sea 6 hours twice. It’s very different from pool swimming. Turns are unimportant, there is no stopping and changing direction every 25 metres and the ability to sprint is of no help whatsoever!

7)            Long powerful strokes, holding rhythm for many hours is important. Go with a rough sea don’t fight it.

8)            Beware of SIPE (Swimming induced pulmonary oedema) where fluids from the blood leak from the lung capillaries to the alveoli. Symptoms? Short of breath, rattling deep in the chest, a cough with frothy sputum.

9)            The English Channel is busy. 600 merchant ships pass through   each day. Plus the 100 or so slow ferries, plus the 45 fast ferries, plus local yachts and holiday makers, coastal protection vessels, naval vessels, cruise liners. A channel swimmer who moves 1.5 knots/hour.

10)         Starting from Shakespeare Beach, the swimmer first enters the English inshore traffic zone!

11)         Waves are choppy, swallowing salt water makes you sick.

12)         Swimmers acclimatise to cold by taking cold showers, cold baths, sleep with a minimum of bed clothing with the bedroom windows.

13)         The swim will be an S shape.  The shortest distance is from Shakespeare Beach, Dover to Cap Gris Nez. France/England swims are no longer permitted.

14)         Bilateral breathing allows the swimmer to be on either side of the boat. Helps to shelter from wind or diesel fumes!

15)         Grease up.  Silicon grease, beef dripping, but 50/50 Lanolin and Vaseline is best. It protects from cold water,  jelly fish tentacles and chaffing.  A 50 per min stroke rate is 45,000 strokes for the swim.

16)         Waves can vary from 3 to 8 feet.

17)         Avoid hazards such as seaweed, flotsam, jetsam, jellyfish, oil, tar, plastic bags, pallets, fridges, floating timber, fish, seals, dolphins plus the occasional sharks, swordfish and whales.

Anybody fancy a dip?


Thursday, September 19, 2019

Authentic happiness?

Michael - Thursday

Stan or Annamaria should be writing this blog. They would be able properly to assess this work; I can only offer my own reactions as a complete layman. Maybe many of you have heard of Professor Laurie Santos already, but I came across her for the first time on CNN a few days ago. She’s articulate and charismatic, and I could immediately see how students would be attracted to take a course - any course - from her. The interview was around the launch of her new podcast that replaces her “happiness course,” Psych 157 at Yale. Wait: a happiness credit course at Yale? That was my automatic reaction as an academic. What do they teach? How do you assess it? By how happy the students are? Why not just give them all automatic As? That should do it. (Turns out it doesn’t, although bad grades can make them, and their parents, more unhappy!)

But I was intrigued. After all, Yale is a serious place. This isn’t some community college offering easy credits. Actually, when you look into it, there’s clearly a lot of serious research work in psychology on happiness. And why not? After all isn’t that what everyone wants? Isn’t that what psychologists try to get their clients to achieve—or at least to become less unhappy?

First off, Professor Santos is no lightweight. She has a PhD from Harvard, is a tenured associate professor at Yale, and has an impressive string of publications in serious journals. Interestingly, her research is in much more mainstream areas of psychology. Her course is called Psychology and the Good Life, has serious textbooks, and, although I can’t judge for myself, I’ve no doubt it's an appropriate academic offering. It ended up the most popular course Yale has ever offered with 1200 students registered. (It’s now been cancelled because it attracted too many students. I suspect there’s a story there too. Courses are often cancelled because they have too few students, but this way around is a first for me.)

So what was Professor Santos's motivation to offer the course? Normally, academics like to offer courses close to their areas of specialization because (a) they know the most about that, and (b) they hope to attract students to work with them. But Santos is the head of a college at Yale and she’s discovered that her students really are not happy on the whole. One’s immediate reaction is: what’s not to be happy about? They’ve been accepted by an Ivy League college, a good future lies ahead of them, and probably their parents are forking out the money. And college years are supposed to be the best of your life. But it turns out college students generally aren’t happy. An American College Health Association survey noted that 52% reported feeling “hopeless” while a mind boggling 39% reported being so depressed that they’d battled to function at all at some point in the previous year. So much for the best years of your life. When Santos became the head of Silliman College, she found that her students were experiencing all these issues, and that motivated her to offer the course. And she admits to a sneaking suspicion that despite her successes, she wasn’t as happy a person as perhaps she thought she ought to be.

I think we’re no longer surprised by the advice to spend money on experiences rather than things, and there’s theory behind that one too. We all know the old joke about “Money isn’t everything, but who’s so greedy they want everything?” Well, it turns out that provided you have enough for basic needs, money isn't really a big factor in happiness at all. And once your income reaches a certain level (about $75k annual income in the US), money doesn’t affect your happiness at all, even though people are adamant that more will make them happier.  Then again, Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at UC, Riverside, has suggested that 50% of happiness is determined genetically, 10% by circumstances, and only 40% by things you can actually change. So you need to work pretty hard on what's under your control to make a difference!

I feel sorry for this person...
The course is described as both theory and practice. There’s plenty to study, but you’re supposed to be able to do the practice as well. And as for quantitative assessment, there’s the “Authentic Happiness Inventory” from Penn State. If you want to try it, it’s available free on line here (although you have to register), and it establishes a personal baseline before you start the course. The site has a strong disclaimer: they cannot say that this gives you an absolute measure of your happiness. Rather it compares you to people in a similar population group (by geography, age, etc.). As with many surveys, I had difficulty with some of the questions. Presumably choosing the option “the whole world is a much better place because of my life,” would indicate that you are pretty happy with yourself and your contributions. It almost certainly also means that you are delusional. Nevertheless, I took the survey and ended up with 3.54 out of 5, which put me in about the top third. I was surprised. I think of myself as pretty happy. Only the top third? Maybe people are much happier than Santos believes? Or maybe I need to take the course? But I still have a sneaking suspicion that maybe what the course will do is just get me a better score on the quiz. But then, you might say pretty much the same thing about a lot of other courses! (Santos says the course pushed her score up by a full point and most of her students do so as well.) 

If you’re interested in finding out more, google Laurie Santos or take a look at her podcast series that launched this week.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Getting the science right: guest post from Brian Price

Pic courtesy of Pixabay
I’m delighted to be a guest on this blog—many thanks to Leye Adenle for letting me have his spot.  I’m a long-term fan of crime fiction and a chemist/biologist.  I’ve found a way to combine my reading pleasure with my interest in science which I hope will be both interesting and useful.

Perhaps I’m a pedant. Maybe it’s my scientific background. But I do like to see crime writers getting things right!  I’ve no problem with alternative realities in science fiction or fantasy where the normal laws of science are broken.  But in crime novels, I like to see scientific accuracy and sometimes, alas, mistakes creep in.

Rather than sitting here grumbling, or writing complaining letters to authors like one of the “picky-ass readers” Stephen King has described, I thought it would be useful to help crime writers to avoid some basic, common, scientific mistakes.  I set up a website ( providing tips on poisons, weapons, explosives and other topics and was then encouraged to develop this into a full-length book. The result is CRIME WRITING: HOW TO WRITE THE SCIENCE, published in the UK by Studymates this month.

The book covers a range of scientific topics relating to crime and assumes no scientific background on the part of the reader.  It starts with how poisons work and the effects of specific toxins and dispels some myths along the way (nothing is instant and cyanide does not make you blue, for instance).  

It looks at knocking people out (don’t bother with chloroform, and trying to inject someone in the back of the neck to produce instant unconsciousness won’t work either). I cover explosives and fires, without giving too much away as I don’t want to end up charged with assisting terrorism, and I describe the basics of firearms which are often misdescribed by non-U.S. writers (a 38mm handgun, anyone?) or shown inaccurately on screen.  Blowing someone backwards through a window with a shotgun while remaining stationary yourself breaks the laws of Newtonian physics (as well as the window) and you can’t actually “silence” a revolver.

Getting rid of a body is not as simple as is sometimes depicted and, despite Dame Agatha’s assertion that Murder is Easy, killing someone is not always that straightforward. Nevertheless, humans are fragile, especially when stabbed or repeatedly bashed over the head, so I try to bring a little biological reality to violence. 

DNA transformed detection and I outline the basics but also point out where it can be misleading—the fact that someone left DNA at a crime scene doesn’t mean they are the villain: the when and the how are critical.  I mention some exciting developments in forensics and also point out the drawbacks of some long-accepted forensic techniques.

The book isn’t a practical guide for a would-be murderer, divulging arcane secrets from the laboratory which will enable someone to poison a rival with a houseplant or make a bomb from shaving cream and cocktail cherries.  

Pic courtesy of Pixabay
I don’t name and shame authors—I respect crime writers too much.  But I do point out mistakes I’ve come across without identifying the source. I also point out where someone has got something right (referring to tobacco tar stains rather than nicotine, for instance).  

I hope that the book will be useful to crime writers and fascinating to crime readers.  If it helps, I’ll be delighted—and I’m happy to assist further if needed.

Brian Price

Brian Price is a chemist and biologist who retired from the Environment Agency in 2016. He is the author of CRIME WRITING: HOW TO WRITE THE SCIENCE and runs a website offering tips on science for crime writers ( He is an avid reader of crime fiction and has also written a number of short stories, one of which was a runner up in the Weston-super-Mare Literary Festival 2019 and another was short listed in the Chorley Writers Circle competition in 2018. He taught science and technology courses for the Open University for 26 years. Previous books include P FOR POLLUTION and C FOR CHEMICALS (with Mike Birkin)

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Eating local in Paris comes from the roof

Chefs in Paris are taking the concept of "eating locally" to heart, with rooftop gardens sprouting up around the French capital. And they say the concept is here to stay.

  Even slap bang in the middle of Paris, chefs are taking the slogan "eat local" to heart, planting kitchen gardens on the roofs of their restaurants.
 The secret of success in producing organic vegetables of comparable quality to those grown in market gardens rests on a magic potion put together with France's national agricultural research institute, the INRA.
The key is the rich substrata createe from urban organic waste such as coffee grains, grass and wood cuttings, which are both lighter and richer than normal soil. To this goes fungus spores and a liberal dose of earthworms and compost.
The restaurant roof gardens in Paris tend to work on organic lines. Basil and carnations are planted next to tomatoes to keep away aphids, with black soap used as an insecticide and nettle manure to push on plants that fail to thrive. Crops are rotated with the seasons so as not to exhaust the soil.
But work still needs to be done to make the gardens pay for themselves.
Last May I ate at Ecole Ferrandi - a school of gastrony, which opened the city's newest rooftop garden and hopes to help spread cuisine from roof gardens.
"The idea is that a roof garden should not just be reserved for haute cuisine. We want to show that it can pay its way on what can be harvested from it," says Pablo Jacob, a 25-year-old future chef in the last year of his studies.
 The materials for the sixth-floor Ferrandi garden, with its large wooden plant boxes set across a terrace, cost €7,500 euros 
Pablo picked up a sprig of oysterleaf -- "mertensia maritima" -- a rare herb with a strong taste of the sea, which even on the wholesale market costs a small fortune per portion.
"You have to choose plants with high added value, and it takes time," he said in front of his boxes of sage, melissa and woodruff.
The eat-local mantra which is developing not just in the countryside but "in the middle of Paris is the big thing for future chefs", he said.
"It is not just a trend, it's here to stay."
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, September 16, 2019

My 37th State: Wisconsin

Annamaria on Monday

I've spent the weekend on my first visit to Wisconsin.  What brought me here in the first place was a field trip with staff and board members of my beloved Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.  We went to check out a sister organization.  The American Players Theater is a nonprofit regional theater in Spring Green, established forty years ago and going strong.  Like HVSF, it is dedicated mostly the classics played in repertory, mostly in summer.

My group and I saw four plays and three days, and were treated (with the accent on treat!) to back stage and facilities tours, dinners and meetings with APT's board and incredibly hospitable and generous staff members.  Their well-deserved success can be seen in their most important statistic: Over 100,000 tickets sold every season (and this in an area about an hour's drive from the nearest good-size city).  The 1080 seat outdoor theater was packed the Saturday evening we saw "She Stoops to Conquer."

You can find more about this marvelous organization here.

While in Spring Green, we took the opportunity to tour Taliesin, the historically preserved home of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Let me give you a glimpse of it. 

I love to look at people's bookshelves to get to know them.  Here are a couple
shots of FLW's.

One of the things I have always admired about FLW's
designs is his idea to turn a corner into a window.
I loved this perfect way to frame a gorgeous view.

Proof I was really there

These two are for you, Susan!

Much is made whenever Frank Lloyd Wright's work is discussed about the undeniable influence of the Japanese aesthetic on his work, but in his home I saw a Chinese painting that looked to me like an inspiration for some of his design choices.  Here's the evidence.  Tell me what you think:


Now, I am off to spend some days with friends and family in the San Francisco Bay Area, on which I will report next week.  Toodle-ooo, in the meanwhile.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Memories I Wish I Did Not Have


This past Wednesday was the 15th Anniversary of a day none of our generation will ever forget.  I spent the day partly at sea and partly amid the mesmerizing beauty of the Aegean Greek Island of Naxos.   Eight years earlier, a New York City-based newspaper asked that I be part of its 9/11 10th year commemorative issue and write about where I was that Tuesday morning.  Here is what I wrote, and what I shall never forget. 

I like it over here by the United Nations.  Beekman Place is different from other New York City streets; it’s more like a quiet, residential private road in an elegant European city.  My walk to my office is down First Avenue overlooking the East River and alongside the gardens and flags of the UN.  It gives me a few daily moments of serenity and escape from the often out of control state of my life as a lawyer here.

I need this walk today.  The sky is so blue and clear, except for the few smoke-like clouds on the downtown horizon.  I’m up by the UN General Assembly Building when I call my friend Panos to find out how his date went last night.  He’s frantic and says he can’t talk.  He’s waiting for his mother to call him from Greece.  I ask if everything is OK.  He says she’ll be worried when she hears that his office was struck by a plane.  I must have misunderstood him.  He works in the World Trade Center.  He says his office building is burning and he has to get off the phone.

Those are not clouds on the horizon, it’s smoke.

I tell him to get out of the building.  He says it’s not necessary.  He’s okay.  His date kept him out late and he’s still at home.  He’ll go to work in the afternoon, after the fire is out.  He hangs up.

How could a plane have hit the World Trade Center on a day as clear as this one?  Something must have happened to the pilot.  I hear sirens everywhere and move a little faster toward my office.  By the time I get upstairs everyone is looking out the windows on the south side of our building.  It has an unobstructed view of the Towers.  Now they’re both burning.  I’m told a second plane hit the second Tower.  We all know what that means—even before learning about the Pentagon.  Someone tells me a plane hit Pittsburgh, my hometown.  I can’t believe what I’m hearing.  I call my daughter, she lives in Greenwich Village.  She’s frightened.  We all are.  I tell her to keep calm. My son is in Cincinnati, I’m sure he’s safe but I can’t reach him.

We’re all glued to the big screen TV in my law firm’s main conference room.  The first tower begins to fall and we turn en masse from the television to look out our windows as it crumbles to the ground before our eyes.  It’s surreal, it can’t be happening.  But it happens again.  Not a word is said while we watch the second tower fall.   We are at war.  But with whom?

My mind can’t fix on what all this means.  I focus on a rumor that there’s an imminent biological anthrax attack and race to the pharmacy for enough antibiotic for my daughter.  That’s something I can do.  Again, I think, my son is in Cincinnati.  He’s safe there.

When I moved to NYC in 1969 my first job was blocks away from the Trade Center site.  The Towers were in the midst of construction and I saw them every morning across the Brooklyn Bridge as I’d head to work.  In August 1974 I watched Philippe Petit do his high wire walk between them, and three years later glimpsed at mountain climber George Willig scale one in the wind.  Even after moving my office uptown they were always in view from my window.  They spanned my career as a lawyer in NYC.  I can’t believe they’re gone.


The City is in shock.  Lines of thousands of refugees from downtown are trekking up Third Avenue toward home or simply to somewhere other than where they were.  No one is talking.  The smell is everywhere, acrid and bitter.  There seems to be grey dust on the shoes of every cop and will be for days.

I stop at a restaurant halfway between my office and home.  It’s Greek and run by a friend.   It’s the only place I can think of to go.  There is no one at home and I can’t get downtown to my daughter.  She’s fine.  Panos comes in.   I try making a joke about his date from last night.  I say he should marry her, she saved his life.  It’s not that funny.

A half dozen or so young men and women of about the age I was when I started working in NYC are sitting quietly at a table along the front windows.  A cell phone rings—one of the few that must be working—and one of the women answers.  She’s a dark haired girl.  She listens, shuts her phone and starts sobbing.  She says something to the others; they hug each other and cry.


It’s after midnight by the time I head home.  My cell phone rings on the way.  It’s a friend from Capri in Italy.  He’s been trying to reach me all day to see if I’m okay.  I hang up and continue home.  I’m tearing.  Friendship like his is what life’s all about.  Family and friends are what matter.

A week later I drive to my farm, get in my pickup and head to Pittsburgh to visit my brother and sister-in-law.  I decide not to go back to NYC but drive south, toward the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  I’ve never been there before, but it just seems the place to be.  I have to drive by Washington, DC to get there.  It’s only when I see the first sign for DC that I realize I’ve made an unconscious pilgrimage past the three sites of the 9/11 massacre—NYC, Western PA, DC.

Duck, NC is chilly in the off-season and the ocean is wild.  I lock myself in a hotel room overlooking the sea and complete my first novel.  I’m driven to make something good come out of all of this bad.  A week later I drive back to NYC.  I’m on the Jersey Turnpike heading north and close to the City, but I can’t tell where it begins.  Its southern landmark is gone.  This world is insane.

A few years later I give up my life in NYC and move to the Aegean island of Mykonos to pursue my dream of writing mysteries exploring the heart and soul of Greece.   There is no reason to wait any longer.  Is there?