Thursday, February 28, 2019

Now you see it

I’ve always found camouflage fascinating. Many animal, plant, and insects adaptations are absolutely amazing. This is probably my favourite character from our Madagascar trip. 

One of my first loves was butterflies and moths, and as a child my room would hum at night with hawk moths flying about sipping honey water and going about their business. Because of its name if nothing else, the Death’s-head hawk moth of Silence of the Lambs fame was a special favourite. It looks pretty obvious on someone's lips, but camouflages pretty well against tree bark.

Male in the top left box, females below the line and the bad tasting species they mimic next to the male
And, of course, I loved the beautiful swallowtail butterflies. At our family home in Cape Town, the long-suffering orange and lemon trees had to support large families of the citrus swallowtail caterpillars. But my favourite was the mocker swallowtail which required a more tropical climate. Here camouflage takes the form of mimicry. One eminent entomologist described it as "the most interesting butterfly in the world". The females have multiple forms depending on the surrounding environment. They often look nothing likes the handsome males but quite like an unpalatable species that is common in the area – sometimes they have multiple forms in the same place, each similar to a quite different unpalatable model. It's interesting to speculate how that evolved. If they all started out looking like the males - and some of the females still do - then how did they become such good mimics?

Speaking of evolution, the process leading to camouflage development can be relatively quick – some species of white moths in Britain have evolved to a smoky grey colour since the industrial revolution. Maybe since the air has been cleaned up, they will evolve back. (If climate change gives them long enough.)

Camouflage also finds its place in the animal kingdom where predators and prey alike would rather not be spotted. Hmm. Unintentional pun, because I want to mention the leopard. The spots are supposed to make them hard to see and beautiful when you do. This was really brought home to me when I was in the bush with two friends. We stopped at a small water hole close to the road and started admiring various water birds. To the left of the pool was a slope with greenish plants which were sporting yellowish flowers. It seemed odd that although the plants stretched along the bank only one area near the water had the flowers. Still, we were concentrating on a Goliath heron so we didn't pay much attention. Then the "flowers" got up, walked towards the road, and gently called a cub out of the bush just to the left of us. The mother leopard had been drinking no more than 100 metres away.

Seriously. Would you see the snow leopard of it wasn't raising dust?
Apart from just enjoying the intricacy and beauty of nature, I'm fascinated by how camouflage works, and that links to my interests in image processing. Why didn’t I see that leopard?

The issue isn’t with our eyes. They behave pretty much like an ordinary sensor in your digital camera. We have red, green and blue cones in the eye that are sensitive to the wavelengths of those colours, and then we have rods which give us brightness when the light isn’t good enough for colour vision.  The eye's lens focuses the light on these individual sensors in the retina, and each sends a signal to the brain for that particular ‘pixel’. That’s pretty much how a digital sensor works too. The interesting part comes after that in the brain. That’s when we do – or do not – see what’s out there.

We don’t really know how the brain does this vision processing. It’s very different from what computers do and that’s why computer vision is a large, difficult area of study with lots of problems to still to solve. Computers find it really hard to do what our brains do. Or even what a mouse's brain does for that matter.  We do know a few things. Movement is a giveaway. We don’t analyse the background much – we sort of get a general impression of it and then set it aside, but we react at once if something moves against it. That’s pretty easy for computers too. All predators know this. If a cat is stalking, it freezes at once if the prey glances in its direction. We also know that generally we see what we expect to see. So when the prey glances in the direction of the frozen stalking predator, it sees more background. Similarly the bird spotting a female swallowtail mimic, sees the unpalatable species. Recent developments in deep learning applied to computer vision have started exhibiting similar behaviour.

A Canadian inventor, Guy Kramer, has started applying these sorts of algorithmic techniques to camouflage clothing for armies (and spin-offs for fashion) with a company called Hyperstealth. Obviously, he keeps how he does his designs very close to his chest, but it’s clear that he uses the mathematical idea of fractals and also the way images pixelate. The former is probably because the real world isn’t ‘smooth’ so fractals are what our brains expect, the latter may have more to do with the way digital sensors work since much surveillance now is done by sensors and computers. It seems to work. Or at least the armies that spend millions of dollars with his company believe it does. Of course, a little thought is needed. The Afghan army chose the forest camouflage when only 10% of their country is forested. Oh well, it's only money.

Is this real???
Not satisfied with that, Kramer is after a Harry Potteresque cloak of invisibility. Miniature cameras on the back display the background on the front? That’s not entirely science fiction. Still, he’s only working on prototypes. We think. But if he comes up with a production model, the pentagon and other country's equivalents will be after lots more budget. Watch this space. And don’t only watch your back...

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Island Dreaming

Sujata Massey

Winter has a way of making me want to fly the heck away from Baltimore's cold wind, leafless trees, and intermittent ice and snow storms. Sometimes, it actually happens. In the middle of winter of 2018, I spent time to Arizona and India while on book tour. The winter before, it was Hawaii for Left Coast Crime. This year, I'm unfortunately grounded until a late March trip (details later!). Until then,I've vicariously escaped by gawking at books about island life. I've also read so many Caribbean stories I now understand a lot of patois.

Poring through some photos I took last year, I stopped at the sight of this coral house. This old house covered in pretty fish scale shingles lurks almost unseen on a busy street in St. Petersburg, Florida. I passed it daily as I walked from my small hotel to the Vinoy, the grand hotel where the last Bouchercon World Mystery Convention was held.

As I traveled past Victorian houses in St. Pete, they never escaped me, no matter how hard their owners might have tried to plant trees and bushes for privacy. I actually admired the house for being clever enough to have palm and magnolia sentries shielding it from traffic and ugly new buildings and, yes, tourists such as myself.

I suspect this cottage was built in the late 19th century, possibly as a holiday home. In some ways it reminds me of my own 1890s unstained brown cedar shingle house, which also has a white wrap around porch. However my porch has matchstick style bannisters rather the delightfully elaborate lacy design, and its brown color is so dull when compared with orange sherbet.

The Caribbean design books explain that a fancy porch like the one pictured above could grace a home in the Bahamas just as much as Florida. And apparently there are special colors, like pinks, that are unique to particular islands because that was what was stocked in the island hardware store.

Bright houses laugh with happiness.

For a homeowner to dress a house in bright paint is akin to wearing a bright gown to the Oscars, as Gemma Chan did. A black dress that fits close to the body is conventional good test. On the other hand, an oversized, fluffy pink confection says, "Let's play."

When people paint their houses to bring smiles, it's an act of generosity. And even if the coral house is locked, the entry for dreams stands wide open.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Africa 2019: Echos of Blogposts Past

Annamaria on Monday

My experiences in my recent travels hearken back to topics discussed here on MIE in the past, so by way of an update and a reminder, here are some recent photos that echo past posts.  Follow the links to the originals.

Here are some shots from my visit a couple of weeks ago to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town.  I first read about that fabulous place in Stan's blog years ago.  These are just a few of the denizens of the smallest of the earth's six floral kingdoms.  Read Stan's blog about it here: Kirstenbosch


This past month, I also saw for the first time a magnificent view of the Rift Valley.  I had written about it and read about it, and didn't even know I was going to see it on my way from Nairobi to Naivasha.  As soon as it came into view outside the car window, I recognized it.  The Kikuyu Escarpment!  Here are a couple of my shots of the view.  You can read all about it here: Rift Valley

No trip to Africa is complete for me without a visit to the Emusoi Center in Arusha, Tanzania.  Here is a snapshot of my friend Nicoletta and me with the current group of new arrivals, and a few of the graduates who are acting as role models.

Bill and Melinda Gates, in their just released annual letter said, "Girls' education, especially,  is among the most powerful forces on the planet...In fact, UNESCO estimates that if all women in low- and middle-income countries finished secondary school, child mortality in those countries would fall by about half."  Here is link to one of my blogs on how Emusoi has been working toward this goal for over twenty years.  You can help too.

Regular readers of MIE may recall several blogs I have written about an inscription on a rock in Longido, Tanzani, made by an Italian prisoner of war.  Since Arusha is not that far from Longido, while I was at Emusoi, I paid a visit and saw the inscription for myself.  Here is how we found the man who made it.    

Speaking of Italian prisoners of war, that corniche road that gave us those magnificent views of the Rift Valley was built by prisoners.  Perhaps Elia was one of them.  When they finished the job, they asked for permission to build a Catholic church along the road.  Nicoletta and I found out about it from an Uber driver in Nairobi, so we asked the driver who took us to Naivasha to stop and let us have a look.

Once I was back in Florence after my sojourn in Africa, I received a most wonderful sculpture.  I have written here about the works of my friend Lorenzo Perrone, who make his works of art from books.  He made this one for me:


It is called Le Onde del Destino (The Waves of Desinty).  He said this to me when he delivered it: "The book is the dominant part because you are all about the book.  The little boat is you, sailing on with adventures.  Even though the waves are big, you are sailing on top of them."  What an incredible privilege to have an artist like Lorenzo make such a beautiful thing for me!  

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Talking of Books: A Look At Audio

Zoë Sharp

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about writing fiction was to read the words aloud. Reading your own work really helps you to pinpoint those clunky bits of narrative or dialogue, or those descriptive scenes that go on for just a bit too long.

Better yet, I’ve found, is to get somebody else to read your work back to you. After all, you as the author know how the rhythm of the story should run and where the emphasis should go for maximum dramatic effect.

"Listen very carefully. I will say this only once..."

But, if those clues are not present in the way the words are presented on the page, then your reader is never going to be able to reproduce that same rhythm in their head. I’ve always believed that more than the subject matter, the characters or the plot, it’s the individual voice of the writer that turns casual readers into continuing fans.

When you pick up a book by an author unknown to you, before you’ve finished the first paragraph—often even the opening sentence—you just know if you like the sound of that writer’s voice. I had this with the first Robert B Parker novel I picked up, the first Ken Bruen and the first Lee Child. More recently, I happened across the Wyatt Storme series by WL Ripley. They all have such a distinctive style that flicks a switch inside my head. Something in the back of my mind goes, “Yes!” and I have to read on.

I confess I have this same feeling when I start to listen to an audiobook by a particular narrator. There are some books by authors I love, but I simply can’t stand the way the narrator sounds. And vice versa, some narrators are so good, I’d listen to them read from their shopping list if I got the chance.

Much as listening to Rowan Atkinson go through an imaginary school register is a riot, for some reason I’ve never found his Mr Bean character funny.

Lewis Hancock falls firmly into the category of narrators I could listen to all day. (I wonder if I could persuade him to record that Rowan Atkinson sketch…?) I know I’m not the only person who thinks so. I’ve listened to all kinds of books he’s read, some of which would not have been my usual choice. But with Lewis speaking the words to me, I am invariably glued to the story.

I was lucky enough to have Lewis as the narrator for THE BLOOD WHISPERER and he made a wonderful job of it. I have to confess, though, that the extract they chose for Amazon UK sample is taken from the one mildly kinky sex scene in the book, which I’m not sure is entirely representative. I swear I can hear the smile in Lewis’s voice as he’s reading it.

Last week, I spent a day in Manchester at Greenbank Studios in Sale, listening to Lewis record part of DANCING ON THE GRAVE, which came out in print and digital formats last year. The audio edition will be out very soon from Oakhill.

Lewis spends a lot of time before he gets to the recording stage prepping a print-out of the manuscript. He adds his own punctuation so he’s not taken by surprise by convoluted sentence construction—although I do try not to include too much of that.

Lewis Hancock, in an uncharacteristic serious moment.

He also checks pronunciation of unfamiliar places and names, and chooses suitable voices for the different characters if they’re not specified in the text. (And there’s nothing worse, he reckons, than mentally rehearsing one accent for a character, only to find out near the end of the story that they speak with another. Or—worse still—it not being mentioned until book two…)

The technician at the studio was Liam Wheatley. It was his job not only to handle the actual recording of the narrative, but to monitor the quality of the sound and check for errors.

Liam Wheatley at the flight deck.
Watching Liam work was amazing. Originally from a screenwriting background, he’s been working for Greenbank since 2014 and can actually read the waveform of the audio track. So, if there was unexpected background noise, or Lewis tripped up on a sentence, he was able to instantly pinpoint the location. He’d take the cursor back to partway through the last clean section, which he’d play to Lewis in the sound booth next door, cutting back to recording just before the error so Lewis could pick up the narrative again. And he did it in less time than it’s just taken me to explain the process.

This means that Lewis feels able to stop and go back if there’s a piece he’s just read that he’s not happy with, without worrying about slowing the job down too much.

Liam also follows the text on screen, and pays enough attention to point out the occasional missed or transposed word. Sadly, not everybody takes such care over the text.

He takes just as much trouble over post-production. The system he uses, Pro Tools, marks all the pick-up points so Liam can go back later to close up any extended pauses. He also removes any page-turning noises, mouth clicks or breaths. Having listened to THE BLOOD WHISPERER, as well as other recordings done by this partnership, I can vouch for the quality of Liam’s work.

Spending the day watching Lewis and Liam work was illuminating. Here are just a few of the notes I took during it:
  • Try to pick names that are easy to pronounce quickly, unlike Frederickson, Blenkinship, and Sibson.
  • Quick swaps between characters with very different accents can be very tricky.
  • Exciting bits flowed better. It seemed easier with some impetus behind the words.
  • It’s very hard when using a Geordie (Newcastle) accent, to have a character say angrily, “With all due respect, sir!” and not have him come out sounding Scottish.
  • The words "bull bars" can sound remarkably like "ball bars", which conjures up entirely the wrong image!
  • It would make life much easier for the narrator if you invented a character who spoke with a stutter or a lot of phlegm in his voice…

So, my question this week is, do you listen to audiobooks more now than you used to? Do you follow certain authors or certain narrators particularly? What irritates you about an audiobook recording? What do you like best about them?

My thanks to Lewis and to Liam for their patience and forbearing. I tried not to stick my oar in too often, guys!

If you’re looking to have an audio recording made of your work, it would be well worth talking to Liam at Greenbank Studios. Contact him at

This week’s Word of the Week is vicissitude, meaning a passing from one state to another, an alternation, mutation or change, usually for the worse. It comes from the Latin vicis meaning change.

Upcoming Events:

March 8-10
CRIME & PUBLISHMENT—The Mill Forge, Gretna
Workshops on Getting Your Action Scenes Right
Caro Ramsay is also teaching at this event—Breaking Bones For Fun

May 9-12
Friday, May 10, 13:40-14:30
Contemporary Issues: Reflecting How We Live

Saturday, May 11, 11:20-12:10
Ten Year Stretch: The CrimeFest Short Story Anthology
Peter GuttridgeCaro Ramsay, Zoë SharpMichael Stanley (Stan Trollip), Kate Ellis (Participating Moderator)

Sunday, May 12, 09:30-10:20
The Indie Alternative

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Tucson Festival of Books, Here I Come


Next weekend, March 2-3, is the Tucson Festival of Books, a celebration I’ve long wanted to attend, but one conflict or another has always kept me away.  This year is different and I can’t wait to be there.  Authors and readers rave about it. It’s very different from Bouchercon or other crime genre conferences, because it draws from all aspects of the literary arts.

Frankly, I have a soft spot in my heart for the book festival format, for it was at Miami Book Fair International that I met our founder, Leighton Gage, who dragooned me aboard this mighty mystery ship MIE.

As of this moment only one thing stands between me and Tucson: the Mexican border.  No, I’m not suggesting Tucson is in Mexico. I’m saying I’m in Mexico. Cabo San Lucas to be precise.  Here’s a picture of it from a magazine.  That’s about all of it that I saw—the picture—but that’s another story for another time. 

Now, back to Tucson.

I’m looking forward to my panels, but one in particular has me clicking the heels of my boots together. (Yes, boots.  It is, after all, Arizona.)  On Saturday morning at ten, Martin Walker, Michael McGarrity and I face interrogation by Aimée Leduc’s creator, Cara Black. Hopefully, it won’t be in French.  

This is how TFOB describes itself and it’s mission:

The Tucson Festival of Books is a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization dedicated to advancing literacy and education in Southern Arizona. We are largely dependent upon sponsorships and contributions to support this event; all programs are offered free-of-charge to the public during festival weekend. The Tucson Festival of Books will be held on Saturday, March 2 and Sunday, March 3, 2019 on the beautiful University of Arizona campus in Tucson, Arizona. The festival enters its eleventh year as the third largest literary event in the country attracting more than 140,000 participants during the weekend. All proceeds from the festival are donated to local nonprofit organizations that support improved literacy in Southern Arizona. More than $1,800,000 has been donated since the festival began in 2009.”

And here’s the link to its website providing details for having a terrific weekend among book folk. I can’t wait, and hope to see many of you there!


My Upcoming Events

March 2, 4:00 PM
Tucson, AZ
TUCSON FESTIVAL OF BOOKS – Student Union, Tucson Room
Panelist “Masters of the Police Procedural,” with Tim Johnston and Peter Leonard, moderated by Anne Segal.

March 3, 10:00 AM
Tucson, AZ
TUCSON FESTIVAL OF BOOKS – Integrated Learning Center, Room 120
Panelist “CSI Publishers Row,” with Michael McGarrity and Martin Walker, moderated by Cara Black.

March 3, 1:00 PM
Tucson, AZ
Moderating “A Legal Thriller Conversation” with Phillip Margolin and Harriet Tyce

March 3, 2:15 PM
Tucson, AZ
Author Signing at CLUES UNLIMITED exhibition venue

March 29, 4:00 PM
Vancouver BC, Canada
LEFT COAST CRIME –Hyatt Regency Vancouver
Moderating “International Settings” with Alice K. Boatwright, G.M. Malliet, Sujata Massey, and S.J. Rozan

THE MYKONOS MOB book tour begins:

April 2, 7:00 PM
Seattle, WA
THIRD PLACE BOOKS (Lake Forest Park)
Author Speaking and Signing

April 6, 3:00 PM
San Francisco, CA
BOOK PASSAGE (Ferry Building-Embarcadero)
Author Speaking and Signing

April 7, 3:00 PM
Orange, CA
BOOK CARNIVAL              
Author Speaking and Signing

April 10, 7 PM
Pasadena, CA
VROMAN’S (East Colorado)
Author Speaking and Signing

April 12, 7 PM
Dallas, TX
Interabang (Preston Oaks)
Author Speaking and Signing

April 16, 7:00 PM
Scottsdale, AZ
Author Speaking and Signing

April 24, 6:30 PM
Houston, TX
Author Speaking and Signing

April 26, 7:00 PM
Denver, CO
Author Speaking and Signing

April 29, 7:00 PM
Pittsburgh, PA
Author Speaking and Signing

May 1, 6:30 PM
New York, NY
Author Speaking and Signing

May 2, 7:00 PM
Naperville, IL
Author Speaking and Signing

May 3, 7:00 PM
Chicago, IL (Forest Park)
Author Speaking and Signing

May 4, 2 PM
Milwaukee, WI
Author Speaking and Signing

May 9, 5:00 PM
CRIMEFEST—Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel
Panelist on “Nobody Would Believe it if You Wrote it: Fake News, Post-Truth and Changing Words,” with Fiona Erskine, William Shaw, Gilly Macmillan, moderated by Paul E. Hardisty

May 10, 5:10 PM
CRIMEFEST—Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel
Panelist on “Sunshine Noir,” with Paul Hardisty,  Barbara Nadel, Robert Wilson, moderated by Michael Stanley

October 31-November 3
BOUCHERCON 2019---Hyatt Regency Dallas
Panel Schedule Yet to be Announced

Friday, February 22, 2019

A dark, grey day in the dear green city

 There are things you should always do but never get round to. As the song says,

What happened to the wonderful adventures?
The places we had planned for us to go.
Some of them we did, but most we didn't
And why I do not know.

So, for my mum's 82 second birthday, we took her on a tour of the city she was born in.

The weather was very Glasgow. It was cold and sunny, then cold and  overcast, then cold and so windy I couldn't hear the commentary through the earphones.

I thought I'd go black and white.

Central station.

It's looking very depressing. In a previous blog there is also a picture taken right here.
It's sunny, tables are out, beer being supped, people happy.
Not today. 

We can get this on a T shirt.
It means he's a bampot.

           This is where we were sitting, outside at the back, trying to kill my mother with hypothermia.

Switched to colour as monochrome was too depressing
The city chambers in George Sq

These architects should be put against that wall and shot, slowly

The old Glasgow Royal Hospital


The mural depicts story from St Mungo, bringing a robin back to life.

The Tollboth, where we executed people

Glasgow Green, every time I have been here, it's been after a very long run.

The People's Palace with  some botanic gardens on the back. 

A sandstone memorial as a roundabout.
The building at the back is a carpet factory, the factory that  made the carpets on the Titanic.
The owner wanted the factory here but it was so visible the  council said he could build it as long as it didn't look like a factory!

A pub near the first church to get an organ.

Above the italian centre

Above the modern art gallery

Victorian facade

The old citizen newspaper building and the silver anchor building

The picture off the other bus

The Cad'ora building - Iron and glass.

The trains above, the area underneath is known as the highlandman's umbrella


This architect should be pushed down a hill 

Under the M8 motorway, this is the busiest few miles of motorway in Scotland.
It was never meant to take so many cars,  at a standstill.
It has been bolted together... many times.

                  New riverside apartments, and the much loved squinty bridge across the clyde.

The Rotunda, where they used to turn the horses at the end of the underground tunnel.
Now a rather nice restaurant.

The Hydro concert hall seats 12 000- the biggest in Scotland

The armadillo Concert hall
( more comfy seats than above)

The Goliath crane, now used for charity abseiling.

                                                 ????, it's a car park!

                                                      A malt whisky distillery, plenty of freebies                 
                                                    Lots of folk got  off the bus here!

The riverside museum, award winning architecture
All Glasgow museums are free- like in Washington DC!

The tall ship tucked behind the transport museum

                                            And the beloved Waverly paddle steamer, the last ocean going paddle steamer in the world. She was bought by the people of Glasgow for a pound. Unsteerable!

                                            A nice pic of the art gallery over the trees.

By this time, I had lost all feeling in my fingers and had to turn the camera off.
Very dangerous being a blogger.

Caro Ramsay  22 02 19