Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Birthday of the Rock (& starting my new mystery snail style)

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

Yes, it's still Chinese New Year. The whole festival lasts 15 days and today (Jan 31st) is the 10th day or the Birthday of the Rock.

That probably came about because the Chinese words for '10' and 'stone' share the homonym 'shí'.

As kids we were told that if we could carry a small stone around all day without losing it, we would have a fruitful year (ie good results in our exams). I know some girls were given a piece of jade or a tiger eye stone on a chain to wear, but most of us just had a smooth pebble in our pocket.

The Rock's Birthday was also a day when the stone pestle and mortar (like this one below) couldn't be used in the kitchen,

and when snails shouldn't be crushed. Maybe because of the shape of their shells? We also had a few stone snails in my grandfather's garden.

I don't kill snails at all if I can help it, I'm very fond of snails. They're small, have pretty poor eyesight but are sensitive to their surroundings, and protect themselves from the outside world with hard (but fragile) shells. 

Which is kind of how I feel when I'm starting on a new book, like now.

It's a terrifying time with so many ideas and options and possibilities that I could go on forever trying to decide. But snail style, I just start where I am. 

My next book will be another history mystery, set here in Singapore after the Japanese Occupation.

But in what kind of surroundings? Snail style, my characters will need somewhere to eat--the kopitiam or sidewalk coffee shop (precursors of the one I lunched at today) were just appearing then--

 --and they haven't changed all that much!

It's nice to be around friendly people who aren't friends, who'll nod and say 'hello' but won't start a conversation so you can study them and decide which of them you want to add to your collection. 

Like people, snails are very sociable creatures. Patricia Highsmith (who wrote “Man has no more soul than a garden snail. The point is, the garden snail has a soul, too.”) is said to started collecting snails after seeing two of them being companionable in a pet shop window.

I imagine they were like a couple I saw at the kopitiam today, in office wear. The man looked in his forties and was focused on his curry rice and hardly said a word. The woman, who looked much younger, talked non-stop. She had a bowl of seafood noodles in front of her but hardly swallowed more than a few mouthfuls of soup. 

I wonder if the two are colleagues or relatives or some permutation of friends. And if I were to write them in, would I kill him off and point suspicion to her or vice versa? Or would the spectator (poor me in this case) be unceremoniously bumped off for seeing them together?

Here are a couple of snails being companionable. It's easier for snails. because their close encounters with other snails generally lead to either sex or cannibalism. But when it comes to people there's such a wealth of other options... though sex and cannibalism remain interesting options!

I want to look more into the habitat too. Nowadays food supplies are transported in from centralised distributors, but back in the post war days the coffee shop owners would wok-roast their own coffee beans with sugar and butter and sometimes sweet corn stalks and pineapple skins to the requisite dark brown colour and fragrance. 

A kopitiam's reputation was based as much on the strength of its kopi (coffee) and sweetness of its homemade kaya (coconut jam) as the rice and noodle dishes it might serve.

Which opens up possibilities of pointing out the last meal a victim ate contained kaya or kopi was Not prepared in the kopitiam (s)he was found dead in, or that the stone mortar used to bash someone's head in couldn't have been wielded by a superstitious person... unless he or she's the one now making panicky offerings to the Rock to atone...

I won't share any of the photos I took (without permission while pretending to be taking selfies) of all the people in the koptiam. I know the stories I make up about their lives and how/ why they chose what they're wearing/ eating/ carrying/ complaining about/ watching/ texting comes more from me than from them, but until I've settled on the general outline of my next book I'm 'auditioning' characters for major and minor roles and this is probably the second most exciting part of the writing process. 

And it's a lot more pleasant and less painful than the actual writing! 

But I'll leave you with one more snail picture:

I like this one because you can see the snail eyes on stalks that extend and turn to take in everything around it. 

Happy Rock Birthday, everyone! (And please tell me, would you read a book with snails in it? Or would you find them taboo as clues?)


Monday, January 30, 2023

Will AI Replace Us?

Annamaria on Monday

The news report that inspired this blog post said that the NYC Board of Education was considering banning an Artificial Intelligence bot called ChatGPT.  The fear was that students would use the readily available AI instrument to write their homework papers for them.  I have since learned that some education institutions are requiring students to turn in handwritten papers to prevent such cheating.

When I learned that the same bot could write a "poem" in the "style" of William Shakespeare or the Declaration of Independence, I wondered if publishing houses would soon be turning to AI to produce novels, doing away with the need for messy human authors.  I also wondered if AI could write a plausible blog post.  It would have been fun to post such a thing and then own up that it was really "fake Annamaria."

Knowing, as I did, that such a tech experiment would likely be beyond my level of tech savvy, I asked Stan Trollip to give me a hand in my research.  He gave it try.  here is what ChatGPT produced for him, with his instructions in italics and the bot's responses in blue:

Give me the opening of a murder mystery set in Botswana

It was a hot summer day in Botswana when the body of local businessman, John Doe, was found in his office. The police were called to the scene and immediately began their investigation. The office showed no signs of forced entry and all valuables were left untouched, leading the detectives to believe that the murder was not a robbery gone wrong.

As the detectives began to interview employees and associates of the victim, they quickly realized that John Doe was not as well-liked as they had initially thought. Many of the people they spoke to had motives for wanting him dead.

The investigation led to many twists and turns as the detectives uncovered secrets and lies surrounding the victim's business dealings. But as the evidence piled up, one suspect stood out above the rest.

The question now was, could they prove it in court?



Regenerate the response:


It was a hot summer morning in the small village of Gaborone, Botswana. The sun was just beginning to rise over the vast savannah, casting a warm golden glow over the dusty streets. The village was still asleep, but one house was stirring. Inside, a young woman named Mma Ramotswe was getting ready for her day. She was a private detective, and she had a case to solve.

Mma Ramotswe was sitting at her small wooden desk, sipping on a cup of tea and going over her notes for the case. It was a murder case, and she had been hired by the victim's family to find the killer. The victim was a wealthy businessman, and there were many suspects. Mma Ramotswe knew that it would be a difficult case, but she was determined to find the truth.

As she was getting ready to leave her house, her assistant, Mma Makutsi, knocked on the door. Mma Makutsi was also a private detective, and she was excited to hear about the case. Together, they set off to investigate.

The first stop on their investigation was the victim's house. It was a large, luxurious mansion on the outskirts of the village. They were greeted by the victim's wife, who was still in shock over her husband's murder. She told them that she had no idea who could have killed him, and that he had no enemies.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi spent the next few days talking to the victim's friends, family, and business associates. They soon realized that the victim had many enemies, and that the list of suspects was growing.

As they dug deeper into the case, they uncovered secrets, lies, and motives for murder. The closer they got to the truth, the more dangerous the case became. But Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi were determined to solve the case, no matter what the cost.


What happened next?


As Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi continued their investigation, they began to piece together the events leading up to the murder. They discovered that the victim had been involved in a number of shady business deals, and that many of his associates had motives for wanting him dead.

They interviewed several suspects, including a business partner who had been swindled out of a large sum of money, and a former employee who had been fired unjustly. They also talked to several of the victim's mistresses, who revealed that he had been leading a double life.

As they gathered more information, they began to suspect that the murder was not just a simple crime of passion, but a carefully planned and executed scheme. They realized that the killer may have had multiple motives, and that they were dealing with a cold and calculated criminal.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi worked tirelessly to gather evidence, and they were eventually able to identify the killer. With the help of the local police, they were able to arrest the culprit and bring them to justice. The case was solved, and the victim's family finally had closure.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi were hailed as heroes in the village, and their reputation as top-notch detectives spread far and wide. They continued to work together, solving many more cases and bringing criminals to justice.



 It struck me, as I am sure it did Stan, that the baldfaced bot just plagiarized Alexander McCall Smith's characters. And then Stan got it to write about Florence, and guess what.  It stole John Dunning's detective Alessandro Rossi!


Give me the start of a murder mystery set in Florence


It was a warm summer evening in Florence, Italy. The sun had just set over the city, casting a warm orange glow over the ancient streets. Tourists and locals alike were out, enjoying the beautiful weather and the many sights and sounds of the city. But one corner of the city was shrouded in darkness and mystery.

In the heart of Florence, in the Piazza del Duomo, the body of a young woman was found. She was lying on the ground, her body ravaged by stab wounds. The police were called, and they quickly cordoned off the area, trying to gather as much evidence as possible.

Detective Alessandro Rossi was put in charge of the case. He was a seasoned investigator, known for his sharp mind and his ability to solve even the most complex of cases. He knew that this case would be no exception.

Alessandro began his investigation by talking to the locals, trying to find out if anyone had seen anything suspicious. But no one had seen anything, and the murder weapon was nowhere to be found. The victim was identified as a young American woman, a student who was studying art history in the city. She had no known enemies, and her death seemed to be a random act of violence.

As Alessandro delved deeper into the case, he began to realize that the murder was not a random act of violence, but a well-planned and executed murder. He discovered that the victim had been researching a famous painting that was kept in one of the city's museums, and that her research had uncovered a dark secret.

Alessandro knew that he had to find out what that secret was if he wanted to solve the case. He began to investigate the painting and its history, and he soon realized that there were many people who had a motive for killing the young woman. He had to work fast, before the killer strikes again.

As the investigation progressed, Alessandro encountered many obstacles and setbacks, but he never gave up. He knew that he was getting closer to solving the case, and he was determined to bring the killer to justice.


Where was the student working?


The student was working at one of Florence's museums, researching a famous painting that was kept there. She was an art history student, and she had come to Florence to study the city's rich cultural heritage. She was particularly interested in the painting she was researching, and she had uncovered a dark secret about it.

Was the student working at the Uffizi gallery


It is not specified in the story that the student was working at the Uffizi Gallery, but it's possible. The Uffizi Gallery is one of the most famous museums in Florence, and it is home to many works of art by some of the world's most renowned artists. It would make sense that an art history student would be interested in researching a painting that is kept in such a prestigious museum.



Why was the student murdered?


It's not specified in the story why the student was murdered. The story states that the student was working on a research about a famous painting in one of the city's museums and that her research had uncovered a dark secret, but the story does not reveal what that secret is and why that would lead to her murder. The story also suggests that many people had motive to kill the young woman and detective Alessandro Rossi was working on piecing together the motives and the circumstances around the murder and trying to find the killer.


The student was from New York City. Tell me more about her.


Sure, the student was from New York City, she was an art history student, who came to Florence to study the city's rich cultural heritage. She was particularly interested in the painting she was researching, and she had uncovered a dark secret about it. She was described as a young American woman, eager to learn and with a passion for art. She had no known enemies, and her death seemed to be a random act of violence. It could be that she was a bright student, dedicated to her studies, and had a close-knit family and friends back in New York City. Her sudden death would have been a shock for her loved ones, and they would have been eager for justice to be served for her.



I asked “Who was the art student working with?”  The system crashed.

With all this in hand, and the obvious conclusion that this bot in its current incarnation could not be trusted to write a publishable book, I decided to see if the bot could write an essay, rather than a story.  Let's face it, expecting it to create something completely new is a lot to ask.

Here is what I asked it, and how it responded.

This much research is certainly not enough to draw a definite conclusion about the future of bot-novelists, but if what Stan and I uncovered is indicative of AI's creative capabilities, I think most of us are safe from imminent replacement.  However, my requests of ChatGPT reveal a possible sea change in the publishing industry.  Given its definition of what constitutes good crime fiction, it may soon be aiming at the jobs of publishing executives.

I do like one thing it said about all that very much:

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Trains, Wonderful Trains....

 --Susan, every other Sunday

I've always loved trains. There's something about the nature of travel by rail that slows you down, (while simultaneously speeding you up as you miss the traffic). I didn't have many chances to ride on trains while living in the States, but since coming to Japan, I'm making up for lost time.

Most people have heard of Japan's ultra-high speed shinkansen--the "bullet trains" that have impressed the world for decades--and the crowded Tokyo metro trains that carry millions of people to and from work and play on a daily basis.

But these don't even scratch the surface . . . from tiny, one-car rural trains to the fanciful "Joyful Trains," sightseeing trains, and even trains dedicated to eating local specialties "on the move," Japan is a country that loves its rails--and there's a lot of rail to love.  

Today I thought I'd share a few of the ones I've ridden during the past few years:

The AnPanMan train in Shikoku features characters from the popular children's anime (called AnPanMan), whose heads and bodies are made of different types of special bread.

Here comes the AnPanMan express!

Anpan is a round bread filled with adzuki bean paste (called "an" in Japanese). Anpanman is enormously popular with Japanese children - and while riding this train, I saw more than a dozen little kids standing near various crossings, waving to the train as we passed by.

Anpanman and friends

I may not have grown up on a diet of anpan(man), either real or on TV, but I loved this train. Even the memory makes me happy.

More anpanman ...

There are dozens of "character trains" like this around Japan, featuring everything from Thomas the Tank Engine to Pikachu, Hello Kitty, and many more. 

Specialty food trains are also popular. One of the leading candidates is actually close to home: the FujiView Sweets Express, which runs on the FujiQ railway to Kawaguchiko Station in the Fuji Five Lakes district.
The Fujiview Sweets Express, living up to its name

While the last three cars always operate as a standard train, and don't require reservations, on weekends the first car becomes the "Sweets Express"--a reservation-only experience that includes incredible views (including Mt. Fuji, in good weather) and a special dessert menu that changes seasonally. 

Car 1 - the sweets car

Car 1 - all aboard for dessert...

Instead of standard seating, the inside is set up like a cafe; when you board, the staff take you to your assigned seat or table. The huge windows make for amazing views.

My seat!

I've ridden twice - once in the summer and once in the winter. I'll definitely go again, too. 

Winter sweets: chocolate mousse "Fuji" and raspberry-chocolate eclair "sweets express"

Dessert with a view

No post about trains in Japan would be complete without a shinkansen - the fastest of which is currently the Hayabusa (the Japanese word for peregrine falcon) that runs on the Tohoku Shinkansen lines, north of Tokyo.

Hello, Hayabusa!

For rapid travel one step down from the shinkansen, Japan has a lot of futuristic-looking express trains, which cover distances much faster than standard trains, though not quite at the shinkansen's 150+MPH speed. They also look like transformers come to life: 

The real-life mandalorian...

When heading north from Tokyo, you may get to ride a conjoined shinkansen, like the one below. The red train (in front) is a "slower" shinkansen, bound for Akita Prefecture, while the sleek green machine is a Hayabusa bound for Hokkaido (the northernmost terminus of the shinkansen lines). From Tokyo Station to Morioka Station (about two hours north of Tokyo), the trains are joined together, to take advantage of the Hayabusa's powerful engines. At Morioka they uncouple; the red train heads west to Akita, while the Hayabusa keeps racing north alone.  

This is where baby trains come from.

I've even ridden fancy trains without leaving Tokyo. The sleek N'Ex runs north to south through Tokyo, with its northernmost end at Narita Airport (N'Ex means Narita Express). Like many Japanese express trains, all of its seats are reserved, and you need a designated seat ticket to get on board. 

All aboard the Narita Express

Japan even has a number of historic trains still in operation - or, like the one below, on display at museums and parks near the tracks where they used to run. I haven't ridden any of the old steam engines yet, but it's high on my list.

A steam locomotive on the historic Kiso Road

The workhorses of Japanese rail remain the little local trains, which usually have between 1 and 3 cars, depending on the needs of the communities where they run.

The local Tobu train, at Ryuokyo, Tochigi Prefecture

Sightseeing trains are gaining popularity. While some people ride them purely for transport purposes, the rail companies advertise special trains like the Saphir Odoriko below as a destination in and of themselves.  

Saphir Odoriko, Izu

And they're not wrong. The Saphir runs along the coast between Tokyo and the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula, about 3 hours from Tokyo. All of the cars have a view of the ocean, and it's a lovely way to spend a relaxing afternoon.

Still other trains feature exterior "wrap" designs intended to draw attention to special aspects of the area in which they run, or local history or culture. 

Wakayama History on a train

The traditional samurai images on this train in Wakayama prefecture are designed to share a little about the history of the region, and inspire interest in travel to local historical sites. 

In the last few years, Japan has increased its focus on sustainability (always an important part of Japanese culture, but now being taken to a more global level). And yep, it's made its way to the trains as well, with the Sustainable Smile Panda, a special train in Wakayama Prefecture that hopefully makes riders think about conservation of animals and the environment. 

Sustainable Smile Panda

In addition to the cute design, signs inside the train remind riders about the importance of conservation and sustainability, and explain that the train is using prototype engines that reduce emissions, conserve fuel, and use alternative fuels; the hope is that this technology will spread throughout Japan in the years to come. 

Don't look now, but I think they're watching us.

In case you hadn't noticed, it's also really, really cute.

Pandas in Wakayama

A lot of the special trains I've ridden to date were happy accidents, but I like them so much that I'm turning into a nori-tetsu (乗り鉄) - the Japanese term for a train enthusiast who enjoys riding trains (as opposed to a model train collector). In the years to come, I plan to ride as many special trains as possible - and I promise I'll take you along, both on my own blog and here at MIE!

All aboard!!

So... are you a train enthusiast too? Or would you rather not be ridden out of town on a rail?

Saturday, January 28, 2023

They Call Me Mr. Siger



I’m back to being a teacher… in a manner of speaking. 


Six years ago, almost to the day, I wrote about my second wintertime experience teaching the same college intersession course on mystery writing (a semester of work crammed into four weeks, aka the equivalent of taking a drink from a fire hose) at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, thirty miles south of Pittsburgh. 


Students back then called me, “Professor,” but in this week’s return to the classroom all but one student called me “Mr. Siger.”  That lone exception called me “Zayde.” And instead of a semester, I was allotted but a single hour in which to inspire the students with my views on the joys and benefits of writing fiction, no matter what career paths their lives might follow.


I’d been honored with an invitation from my nine-year-old granddaughter’s teacher to speak to her fourth-grade class on what it’s like to be a published author. Attendant to that honor was my agreeing to be pummeled with questions from fourth graders genuinely interested in “the magic” behind writing a book. 


Their teacher offered me this perspective on the invitation: “
As readers we see the author as a mythical creature of sorts...but to meet one and spend time learning that you are in fact a person–will be impactful to the kids as they move through their writing journey.”


In other words, I was invited to humanize the breed.   At the risk of being accused of conduct akin to undermining faith in Unicorns and Santa, I took on the challenge.  And what a joy it was!



Teaching is unlike any other professional obligation I’ve experienced. As a lawyer my duty was to park my predilections at the door and to act ruthlessly (within the law) on behalf of my clients. As a writer my only duty is to write what I like, hoping all the while that my readers will agree with my choices. 


As a teacher, I see my duty as a product of the two: Though I feel responsible to share with my students my personal experiences in a manner that might help them structure their writing lives, I can’t build their unique frames of reference for them, but only suggest where they might look for parts.


What teachers are asked to do every day requires a prodigious amount of work, considerable responsibility, and the ability to rapidly adjust on the fly–all for unconscionably little pay. 


In return they gain irreplaceable moments of personal satisfaction.


Watching the faces of nineteen 4th graders (and one teacher) light up as I explained how reducing their imagined thoughts to writing would enrich their lives and the lives of all with whom they choose to share their tales, brought me pure joy of a sort I’d never experienced before.



What floored me was how quickly the children got it!  For example, when I asked what element of writing they thought most important to a story’s success, the class nearly unanimously shouted back, “the characters.”  Only one disagreed, and that precocious lad said, “the agent.”


How can any teacher not LOVE those experiences.  It gives me deep faith in the future of our nation to know children like this are out there, anxious to productively harness their imaginations as they grow into adulthood.


I would love to show you photographs of my wonderful day at school and my remarkable students, but the former shall remain nameless, and the later faceless.  Sadly, in the world as it is today, anything less than that would be imprudent. 


Instead, may I suggest you shut your eyes and allow your imagination to run off to a place where you’re surrounded by fresh-faced, happy children enthusiastically interested in learning what you want to teach them…and who call you Mister (unless you’re not).



Or Zayde.


God bless all our world’s children.


Thursday, January 26, 2023

Sir John Sloan's Museum

 Sir John Soane's Museum is situated at Number 13, Lincoln's Inn Field. 

We did walk past it a few times because we went the wrong way round the square.

I was very keen to see it. It's  just the house of a very marvellous architect that liked to collect art. I knew it was stuffed full of all kinds of treasures.

I didn’t know it was free! And run by volunteers. So we joined the queue outside. The queue was only so the lovely lady could place my handbag in a plastic carrier bag, and advised me to hold it in front of me- the way Americans hold their groceries on TV. (Is that true?)

Once we entered the house we realised why.  One wrong move and a work of art worth millions could be toppled to the ground. These are very bad pics taken on my phone.  I was holding the bag remember. Alan got much better pics, but they are for another blog.

I was fascinated by it all, there was a Turner here, a Hogarth there.

And the sculpture round the central courtyard was to die for.

So, we are talking the 1830’s. It was all collected by the famous neoclassical architect John Soane (1753-1837).

The building itself looks like all the others in the square but this one had been designed and built by Soane, taking the footprint of the pre-existing buildings that he then modified to make a home. Then he moved into the buildings on either side. In the end, he had numbers 13, 12 and 14. At least.

He even has the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I.

In 1833, the architect left his entire collection to the State. As long as it would be made into a museum. open to the public, he was happy. He wished that the spaces be left the way he left them.

The whole set up is mind blowing, all these ancient objects are up close and personal, visitors have to squeeze past. You can imagine Sir John sitting there, with his feet up, having a cup of tea, looking at the collection. He was very fond of natural light, he liked domes on the roof with a central glass panel so the light floated down and is refracted throughout the space.

Similarly, his portrait is surrounded by panels of mirrors which look unremarkable until viewed  when standing in front of the fire. The image is caught in the reflection, again and again, to infinity.

Insert comment here along the lines of ‘Typical man.’

I couldn’t find out who dud the dusting.

Here's my very bad photographs, but they give a good idea of how Sloan's collection is so very cramped, and very fascinating.

This last pic is a painting of Lady Hamilton.
The one Lord Nelson had an affair with.