What’s Your Birthstone?

Garnet brooch, gemstone

Before the holidays, inspired by my gemology class, I posted about diamonds and pearls (for any last-minute shoppers among my readers), but of course, there’s much more to gemstones.

The majority of gems in the jewelry industry (including at least 95 percent of the diamonds) are “enhanced” to some degree, the class leader—an expert gemologist—explained. Enhancements and treatments can change or remove color; improve clarity, luster, or durability; fill fractures; or, in the case of star rubies or star sapphires, accentuate their stars (“asterism”). Sellers are “required” to disclose such treatments, especially if the stone needs special handling as a result, and the most reputable jewelers do. We crime writers are more interested in the disreputable ones.

Treatments typically include heating the stone (with sometimes unpredictable results), filling fractures (emeralds, especially), bleaching (pearls), irradiation, and exposing the stones to a chemical vapor. Sometimes these enhancements are merely superficial and the results may not last. Another opportunity for shady dealing!

Birthstones

Many of us have a fondness for our birthstones. My January birthstone is garnet, a semiprecious stone (a nesosilicate) that comes in a lot of colors besides the deep red the Victorians loved (as in the brooch above). The green version, for example, is called tsavorite. Different families of garnet are of different chemical compositions, including trace amounts of other elements that affect the color. Tsavorite has a bit of vanadium or chromium.

If you were born in February, your birthstone is amethyst, a type of quartz. The best ones are a deep, rich purple and the ancient Greeks believed amethysts protected their wearers from intoxication. That would be a property well worth fictional exploitation. If an amethyst is heated, it turns yellow, in which case it’s called citrine.

gemstone, aquamarine

The March birthstone in centuries past was bloodstone, an opaque dark green stone with red flecks. Its replacement, aquamarine (pictured), is a type of beryl, as is the May birthstone, emerald. Emeralds are much rarer (and therefore, more valuable), but full of inclusions (flaws) that make them brittle. A candid jeweler may recommend an emerald as “a Sunday stone,” too prone to breakage for a ring you plan to wear every day.

You might think diamonds would be the June birthstone—all those brides–but no, they’re the stone for April, and June’s birthstone is pearls. Both covered in a previous post.

gemstone, sapphire

July (ruby), pinker than garnet, and September (sapphire, pictured) are closely related. They’re both forms of the mineral corundum (aluminum oxide). The red color comes from chromium; traces of a variety of other minerals produce “sapphires” that can be yellow, green, or other colors, or the iconic deep blue. Only the red version is called a ruby.

The August birthstone also has changed over the years. To my mother, born August 1, her birthstone was carnelian (sardonyx), a type of chalcedony, and she wore a beautiful carved carnelian ring. But at some point, the marketing wizards decided more birthstones should be “fancier” transparent gems, and the August stone was changed to the pale, yellow-green peridot. It’s one of the few gemstones that comes in only one color.

October’s birthstone is opal, which is becoming increasingly rare and, therefore valuable. “Precious opal” displays “play-of-color” across its surface, caused by minute spheres and voids within the stone that break up white light and reflect back colors. Wrap one in a bay leaf, and become invisible, people in the Middle Ages believed, something an opal thief would be happy to know about, if it works. Our instructor said she’s often asked, “Should I buy an opal?” and her answer is, “Yes! Twenty years ago.”

The birthstone for November is topaz—another stone that comes in a variety of colors, depending on trace minerals. It can be yellow, golden brown, pale gray (smoky topaz) or a variety of other colors. Mentions of topaz can be found in the Bible, and in ancient times,  it was considered a protective stone. Blue topaz is sometimes passed off as a more valuable stone.

turquoise, silver, jewelry, earrings

Finally, the December birthstone, bucking the penchant for transparent stones, is turquoise in the vintage earrings shown. If you admire the turquoise jewelry from the American Southwest, you know there is a range of shades from green to blue, and you may also know about the booming market in fake turquoise. Turquoise is a form of copper and aluminum and gained its name from the French word for “Turkish,” Turkey being the initial source of the mineral for Europeans.

Whenever your birthday falls in 2021, I hope it’s a good one. Celebrate by decorating yourself with your own special birthstone!

Movie Titles as Mood Creators

Years ago, because I arrived late for a showing of The Three Musketeers, I missed the opening credits. I wanted to see them, though, so when the film ended I stayed in my seat. They were so good, I watched the film a second time. (As a result, I learned what every stage actor knows: No two audiences are alike. Not one laugh was in the same place the second time around!)

Last Friday, we watched an entertaining Zoom program on “The Art of Film Titles,” presented by genial film historian, critic, and mega-fan Max Alvarez, sponsored by New Plaza Cinema in conjunction with New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. It was a fun excursion through the ways in which film titles have evolved over the years and how effective they can be in establishing a film’s mood and tone.

A good example is the beautiful and compelling main title sequence from the 2010 HBO miniseries, The Pacific, created by Imaginary Forces. Combined with the score by Hans Zimmer, you learn—and feel—a lot before the story even begins. Likewise, M & Co NY’s titles for Silence of the Lambs show FBI agent Clarice Starling training alone on a foggy and demanding obstacle course—a metaphor for what she will face (also alone) and the grit she will need when she is assigned to interview Hannibal Lector. A gentler example is the sensuous title sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass for the 1993 film, The Age of Innocence. She cut the sequence to the music of Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, which opens the film. Elmer Bernstein, who was slated to score the titles, said the Faust was so perfect, “keep it!”

In the early days of film, the opening title was a simple affair—one or two static slides, with a lot of facts crammed in. The slide for the 1931 Academy-Award-winning Bad Girl above,, for example, includes not just the film title, but the director (Borzage), the studio (Fox), and the leading cast members. Nothing about it hints what’s coming or how audience members should feel about it. So much data, no information.

Up until the 1990s, film titles and animations were hand-produced. Today, of course, they are mostly computer-generated. That doesn’t automatically mean they are more complex. Alvarez cited one of the masters of film title creation, Kyle Cooper, who has produced more than 350 visual effects and main title sequences. He created his jarring, multi-layered titles for the 1995 movie Se7en without computers, in what Alvarez dubs “serial killer font,” complete with real scratches on the film. You can revisit a great many film title sequences at Cooper’s website, The Art of the Title. You may even find some titles you liked better than the actual movie. I hate when that happens!

What a Gem!

In case I ever write the fine jewelry thriller (that is, a thriller about fine jewelry) that I have in mind, I signed up for a Zoom class on “gems,” taught by a registered gemologist. Now I really have to write that story! Our instructor, Hillary Spector, was fantastic, and here are some of the pearls I gleaned.

Diamonds

Diamonds form in the earth’s mantle, in the presence of intense heat and pressure, plus their constituent element, carbon. They were formed up to 3.3 billion years ago and carried up closer to earth’s surface through volcanic action as “recently” as 20 million years ago. They may be a girl’s best friend, but they are an old friend.

Diamonds are at the top of the scale in terms of hardness, but they can break or chip. The toughest stone used in jewelry is jade. Hardness and toughness aren’t the same.

Look for the four C’s when assessing a diamond: cut (the sparkle), color, clarity, and carat (how much it weighs, not how big it looks); these are all measurable attributes. If my fictional jewelry seller is pushing a stone’s beauty, that’s irrelevant to value and, therefore, the asking price, which depends on rarity.

Lab-grown “synthetic” diamonds are chemically and anatomically the same as a mined diamond. Sellers are required to make it clear to purchasers that the diamond was not mined (opportunities for fraud?).

Pearls

Pearl jewelry is having a renaissance, and pearls are even appearing in engagement rings (not a good idea; they are neither hard nor tough enough for daily wear). In London, I saw the unfortunately termed pearl choker of Mary Queen of Scots, which was so small it looked the size of a bracelet.

Forget the old distinction between “natural” and “cultured” pearls. All pearls on the market today are cultured. The commercial prospects for natural pearls have been lost to ocean pollution and global warming (increasing the temptation to steal vintage natural pearls?).

Once one or more mother-of-pearl beads is inserted into a pearl oyster, growers give the pearl at least ten months to form, but 24 months is optimal. All Akoya pearls are bleached and may be further colored with dye or irradiation. By law, this must be disclosed to the buyer, which opens up possibilities for scamming!

Freshwater pears form in freshwater mussels, primarily cultivated in China (international intrigue)!

The value of a pearl is always related to rarity. Like the four C’s of evaluating diamonds, the actors that rate pearls are measurable, independent, and must all be present: size, shape, color, luster (shine), surface quality, enough layers of nacre, and, if they are supposed to be “matching,” must match on all those characteristics. (“Their beauty justifies the ‘investment,’” says the deceptive salesperson.)

Must Re-watch!
Diamonds are Forever
The Hot Rock
Return of the Pink Panther
Girl with a Pearl Earring

Rekindling a Love Affair with Television

Somebody Feed Phil

Thanks to quarantines and streaming services, I’ve been watched more television these last few months than I have in years. Here are series our family found especially entertaining, ICYMT:

Somebody Feed Phil – In each episode, comedy writer Phil Rosenthal (pictured) visits a city somewhere in the world and, accompanied by local restaurateurs and food critics, drops in on local markets and farms, seven or eight restaurants of multiple types and price points, and a few of the unique sights. Phil loves everything he tries (almost), and he tries everything. The humor is broad—OK, it’s corny. A foodie website dissed the show because Phil isn’t a “real” food expert, which shows the reviewer totally missed the point. What he’s demonstrating is that anyone can have a wonderful time when they have an open mind—and mouth. He has fun, and we do too! Plus, I’ll bet he knows a lot more about food than he lets on.(Netflix)

The Americans – about Soviet citizens embedded in American life and carrying out spy things. Based on a real-life Russian program (that was apparently remarkably unsuccessful), the series was every bit as good as all my spy/thriller writing friends have said. It was brilliant to set the series during the 1980s, as the Soviet Union was imploding. But I did wonder why Philip and Elizabeth never seemed to worry much about fingerprints. (Amazon Prime)

Call My Agent – Three seasons of this French comedy series are available, with subtitles, about a quartet of Parisian talent agents. Although they all work for the same firm, they are competitors, and their colleagues better not forget it! The strange deals they get involved in always misfire in some awkward, barely salvageable way. Adding to the fun is having real French movie stars play their clients. There they are, without their makeup or their game face on. Playing themselves, sort of. (Netflix)

The Crown – Now showing: The Diana Years. We especially like Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles. O’Connor played author Lawrence Durrell in PBS’s The Durrells in Corfu, which was a charming series. If flint-hearted Margaret Thatcher (superbly played by Gillian Anderson) mentions her father one more time . . . (Netflix)

World Aflame

Last week I posted information from a Wired article by Daniel Duane about the changing nature of Western wildfires. The fear and heroism that emerge in the American West, in Australia, and in other fire-prone areas are ripe for fiction. A writer can always hope that a compelling depiction of the difficulties and terror of wildfires might serve the broader purpose of encouraging better fire management policies, greater support for fire fighters, and improved public safety.

Among the many fascinating “made-for-fiction” aspects of the problem of fire intensity is how very intense fires mirror the experience of Allied bombing campaigns during the Second World War. British and American flight commanders learned they could burn cities down more easily than they could blow them up. And they could burn cities more easily if they knocked down the buildings—especially in neighborhoods with highly flammable wooden structures–before attempting to light them on fire.

That strategy is what caused the catastrophic damage to the German city of Dresden, pictured, producing “a single giant plume of heat and smoke (that) took on a shape similar to a giant thunderstorm,” Duane says. The firestorm had hurricane-force winds that magnified the destruction. These effects are similar to the firestorm experienced after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and predicted if a nuclear weapon hit a national forest in a 1964 US Forest Service report.

The western forests’ accumulation of long-burning heavy fuels—logs and fallen trees that smolder for long periods before bursting into flame—creates conditions similar to those that produced the smoking ruins of European cities. The key ingredient, Duane says, is “simultaneous burning of many small fires in a combination of light and heavy fuels over a large area with light ambient wind.” Over time, the small fires join, the heat plume begins to rise, and the whole catastrophe unfolds.

Duane’s article, like other research writers do, provides the vocabulary—and in this case, a hit at the dynamics of fire—that lets us write about catastrophe persuasively. It doesn’t make us experts, but it gets us a good way there. It leads us to asking the right questions.

This whole article is well worth reading, and part one of my summary is here.

Photo of Dresden by Art Tower, Pixabay.

Thanksgiving, 2020

turkey feather

Enjoy this special holiday (and the 4500 calories the average American reportedly consumes on Thanksgiving Day)! Stay safe now to make it  possible to be with your loved ones later.

Photo: Turkey feather, Josch13 for Pixabay.

Lighting and Sound: Theater Magic

Like everything else in theater, there’s much more to lighting and sound design than their obvious purpose of making on-stage action visible and audible. Through means bold and subtle, they enhance our experience and understanding.

Lighting Design

Lighting signals us where to look and who’s the current character of interest, not necessarily the speaker. The type of lighting used (harsh or flattering, bright or muted) further reveals something about the time and place where a scene occurs.

For the last class in my “how to watch a play course,” we watched Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau, as produced by the Lincoln Center Theater. The stage was bare, each scene defined by only a few pieces of furniture, and the lighting did much to reinforce each setting. In the high school scenes, cold, bright light mimicked fluorescents; in the teacher’s home, the light was warm, subdued, and her son’s white shirt glowed in the dimness. While we might not consciously notice this difference, we would definitely perceive it.

Lighting can create a mood and reinforce a production’s style. The fuchsia lighting of the dance scene in She Loves Me was not “realistic”—nor was the dance—but everything worked together to convey the sense of watching a confection.

Smaller effects are also important—the light through a window reflected on the wall, the change in daylight from morning to night, the use of “practical lights” like lamps, flashlights, or the light inside a refrigerator.

These days, the myriad light cues in a production are computerized and programmable. If a theater is outfitted with colored LED lights, even the desired color can be specified for the computer, though old-fashioned plastic “gels” are still in use.

Sound Design

Like lighting, sounds help establish time and place (crickets chirping, a clock chiming, sirens). They can be random or diegetic, if, in the world of the play, the actors know about and respond to them, like a ringing doorbell.

Sounds reinforce the reality of a scene, like a car door slamming or the splash of water from a faucet. Such sounds may be easily overlooked, if only because they fully meet our expectations of what a slamming car door or running water should sound like. Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Theater J in Washington, D.C., who led the course, said that, to create the multilayered sound we hear as “rain,” it takes a combination of at least three separate recordings.

Underscoring, or background music, playing softly under dialog, is not heard by the actors and contributes to mood. Sometimes incidental music ramps up between scenes, as it did in Pipeline, holding our attention while sets or costumes are changed.

Pipeline included some deceptively simple sounds. The teacher’s lounge scenes had a public address speaker, which produced the kind of slightly garbled, staticky announcements we remember from high school. The hospital scene also included public address announcements, but they obviously were the product of a high-end system. A tiny but telling detail and a deliberate choice.

World in Flames

wildfire, fire

Daniel Duane’s riveting article in the November issue of Wired, “The Fires Next Time,” should give the people who live in the American West, all of us who have family or friends who live there, and everyone who loves the area’s beauty yet another serious problem to worry about. A distraction from covid, maybe?

You might think my posts about impending disasters—cyberthreats, climate change, and others—suggest I’m teetering on some mental edge. Not so. For me, these “ripped from the headlines” topics open dramatic possibilities outside the overworked crime fiction obsession with serial killers, duplicitous spouses, and missing “girls.”

The wildfires article is laden with enough drama and information about Western wildfires to create some compelling fiction. Martin J. Smith used an advancing wildfire to great effect, ramping up the tension in his 2016 police procedural, Combustion. It can be done.

Duane points out that, though their number seems to be increasing, wildfires were even more frequent hundreds of years ago—before housing developments, ranches, and towns erupted in fire-prone areas. Fires were a natural part of the landscape. The frequency of these long-ago fires meant they stayed close to the ground, burning surface fuels, and the forest ecology evolved to handle such ground-fires of that type.

Even now that fire managers recognize the benefits of periodic burns, which get rid of that ground-level fuel, it’s had to make that case to private property owners in the path of a blaze. Thus, CalFire’s mandate continues to be to extinguish every one of them as fast as possible, Duane says.

His article begins with a deconstruction of the 2018 Carr fire in the northern Sacramento Valley and explains how in recent years, western wildfires have become much more dangerous. The models that let officials predict wildfire behavior, and therefore, how to fight a particular fire and when to evacuate residents, have become obsolete.

There’s a growing incidence of plume-driven fires, in which wind and weather are redirected by the rising heat column to make the fire burn hotter and move faster. The result is a fire tornado. In the Carr file, it was “a whirling vortex of flame 17,000 feet tall and rotating 143 mph.” A fire tornado sucks up flaming debris (like the remains of people’s homes) and scatters it like firebombs, igniting new blazes.

Modern fires move fast. In some instances, Australia’s bushfires moved faster than people could flee them. The 2018 Camp Fire burned 70,000 acres in 24 hours. For a while, Duane says, it consumed “about a football field a second.” That was the fire that killed 85 people in Paradise, California, and sent Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy. In court proceedings earlier this year, the company said, “No apology, no plea, no sentencing can undo [the fire’s] damage, and no passage of time can lessen the anguish we heard expressed in court.”

Next Week: How World War II Strategies Exposed Some Fire Secrets

Photo: Amissphotos for Pixabay

Covid in an Era of Cyber Insecurity

12/3 Update: The attacks on health care entities attempting to address the Covid pandemic continue, with the latest hacker target–the cold chain necessary to distribute vaccines.

Since 2014, the United States has faced an increasing number of well-publicized cyber attacks. Although some have been severe, none have crossed the “traditional threshold of war,” as described by Garrett M. Graff in a November 2020 Wired article. To recap a few of these: In 2014, there was China’s theft of government personnel records and North Korea’s suspected hack of Sony; in 2016, Russia attempted to manipulate the presidential election; and more recently, we’ve seen numerous ransomware attacks on institutions and municipal governments, both large (Atlanta, Baltimore) and small.

In response to such threats, New York City created a citywide cyber command (the NYCCC) in July 2017. This centralized organization works across NYC agencies and offices “to prevent, detect, respond, and recover from cyber threats.” Geoff Brown, head of the NYCCC, described its challenges in a recent online briefing moderated by Cipher Brief founder Suzanne Kelly. A consolidated approach certainly has face validity, compared to asking a hundred different entities with personnel of varying training, skill, and interest to cobble together their own separate, inevitably not interoperable security plans. As Brown said, “We can’t predict what’s coming around the curve, but if we build resilient systems overall, we can respond well.”

Over the last year, in the face of Covid, the NYCCC has used its technical environment to “defend the defenders.” When city agencies moved to remote operations, that process also was aided by the NYCCC’s work. Not surprisingly, cyber adversaries took advantage of concerns about Covid to expand their intrusion attempts, knowing people would more quickly respond to queries and data requests that appeared to be Covid-related and ignore potential red flags.

It was incredibly sobering, Brown said, to reflect on how, in the middle of a life-threatening crisis, the health network itself became so vulnerable. As a result, NYCCC has worked with both the public and the private hearth care sectors to increase awareness of cyber vulnerabilities and strengthen their defenses. Never forget, he warned, that without extreme vigilance, the consequences can be deadly. He cited how a ransomware attack led to the recent death of a German man.

Understandably, health care systems have a fundamental concern about patient privacy, although even that makes the system subject to attack. Clearly, such attacks are corrosive, with damage beyond their initial impact, by damaging citizens’ all-important trust in governmental, public health, and social institutions.

Staging and Choreography: Theater Magic

She Loves Me dance

For our deep dive into staging and choreography (generally, on-stage movement), my “how to watch a play” class viewed Roundabout Theatre’s 2016 production of the musical She Loves Me. You’ll recognize the story from its many incarnations, most recently in the film, You’ve Got Mail. Amalia and Georg are clerks in a perfume shop who really get on each other’s nerves. Yet they have the same secret: a pen pal with whom they are falling in love. Each other, of course.

Our class learned a handy theater word during the discussion of this musical, diegetic: Diegetic elements of a production—sounds, singing, dancing, movement—grow out of the story’s narrative. If there’s dancing, the actors know how to dance and know they’re dancing, as when the King of Siam and Anna waltz away to “Shall We Dance?” Quotidian action, by contrast, encompasses the daily, undramatic tasks the actors perform—buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe. The story doesn’t depend on these actions. When the Kyra Hollis character in Skylight makes a spaghetti dinner onstage, she’s engaged in quotidian action. A third type of movement is termed abstract, and it is neither of the others—like the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story singing their anthems while dancing in the streets. A high school classmate of mine scoffed at the film (which I loved passionately) because “guys don’t do that.” Abstract.

Why does analyzing the type of movement matter? Because, explained course director Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington D.C.’s Theater J, “it forces you to think about the purpose of the choreography (movement),” and what that choice conveys about the mood, the character, the story’s time and place, or even the plot. When an actor puts a gun in a desk drawer, you know that weapon’s coming out again. Or, recall the movement created by the turntable in Hamilton. Why did the creators choose to have that? To me, all that swirling expressed the turmoil of the era, the passage of time, and the evolution of multiple characters’ relationships.

When deconstructed for our class, the patterns of movement in She Loves Me turned out to be unexpectedly intricate, creating satisfying, if subliminal, messages. Movement—even abstract movement—needs to be motivated, which means that actors can move on certain lines, but moving on other lines will create confusion. As Amalia is about to meet her pen pal, her movements in “Will He Like Me?”—alternately walking forward and backtracking—were timed perfectly to the anticipation and hesitation expressed in the lyrics.

A musical typically has a lot of staging and choreography, but even the two-person play Red we watched had a lot of movement (much of it diegenic). In fact, with only two actors, movement is critical to keeping the story going and the audience interested. Staging helps the audience know where to look, as characters emerge in prominence and others melt into the background. And some staging is created just for the beauty of the composition. Nothing wrong with that.

If you’d like to take one of these excellent courses, check out the Theater J website. New classes are starting soon!