In the Sea and Under It

A recent trip to the Windy City (temperature: -1⸰) included a visit to the marvelous, that is, full of marvels, Shedd Aquarium. If you’re ever in Chicago on a business trip, don’t miss it; it’s right downtown.

We were minding the two kids, ages 7 and 9, and we thought by keeping them engaged there, we could spare ourselves the embarrassment of losing chess games to them.

We caught the new special exhibit “Underwater Beauty,” with over a hundred species, only one highlight of which were the charming blue polka-dot jellyfish you see one of here. Of course the reef fish were bright and colorful, and the seahorses adorable, but there also were creatures called “weedy sea dragons” I’d never seen before, pictured below. Rather astonishing.

The Oceanarium show with the beluga whales and dolphins, a sea lion and an owl (?) is always a hit. As is the penguin play area, though they’re outgrowing that. They enjoyed the nearby pet-a-starfish exhibit even more. I could be mesmerized by the lobby’s circular, 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef tank for hours. In the 1930’s water for the aquarium’s saltwater tanks was brought up from Key West on railroad tank cars.

What did the kids like best? Petting the bony backs of the armored lake sturgeon, where they plunged their arms into the water so deep and so often I ended up buying them new (dry) T-shirts. That -1⸰ thing again. Flooded with atypical modesty, they were reluctant to take their wet shirts off until a nearby mom opened her coat flasher style to give them some privacy.

photos: jellyfish, Vicki Weisfeld; weedy sea dragon, Magda Ehlers for pexels

Reading at the KGB Bar

Last night a writing friend and I participated in an even that puts us right at the fringes of the fringes of New York literary society—a reading sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America at KGB Bar in the East Village. KGB Bar is hidden away on the second story of an old tenement, up a vertiginous flight of stairs.

Although this description doesn’t do it justice in terms of its fine balance of joie de vivre teetering on the edge of seediness, here’s what the founder, Denis Woychuk, says about it:

In the years since it opened in 1993, KGB has become something of a New York literary institution. Writers hooked up in the publishing world read here with pleasure and without pay to an adoring public . . . The crowd loves it. Admission is free, drinks are cheap and strong, and the level of excellence is such that KGB has been named best literary venue in New York City by New York Magazine, the Village Voice, and everyone else who bestows these awards of recognition.

He’s right about the pleasure part. It was attentive crowd, even though I was the final reader of five, when the audience had already enjoyed several of those drinks! Wanting to appear convivial yet be one-the-ball for my reading, I’d nursed one glass of wine all evening. “What white wines do you have?” I asked the bartender. “Pinot grigio.” “Oh. What red wines do you have?” “Cabernet Sauvignon.” “I’ll have that.” The barrel savage. How appropriate.

The other readers—P.D. Halt, Mary Jo Robertiello, James D. Robertson, and A.J. Sidransky—each read a scene from one of their novels. I read the opening of a short story to be published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. No idea when it will see the light of day, but if you’re a subscriber, watch for it! It’s called “New Energy.”

I’m so thankful to my writing group, Room at the Table, for organizing our twice-a-year public readings. (The next one is March 27! For details, see our Facebook page.) Great prep for my eight minutes at KGB–a former speakeasy and Lucky Luciano outpost, then h.q. for the Ukrainian Labor Home, a socialist hangout, which explains the Soviet memorabilia and the hammer-and-sickle matchbooks. It was fun!

Cyberthreats: Coming to a Company Near You

The absurdity of a Seth Rogen movie precipitating an international incident may have obscured that episode’s significance as a bellwether in international cyberterrorism. Companies around the world have experienced massive thefts of intellectual property and disruption to their operations. Yet there’s no clear way forward for them. Three dramatic episodes illustrate.

Destruction of a Target’s Network

Remember Sony’s 2014 dust-up with North Korea? Given the reviews, The Interview would likely have quickly sunk into obscurity had The Hermit Kingdom not made an escalating series of threats, saying release of the film would be considered an act of terrorism. While the U.S. State Department was telling Sony it wasn’t in the business of censoring movies, North Korean hackers were penetrating Sony’s computer system top-to-bottom.

Our government was clueless about the company’s peril. Says David Sanger, “hackers working from laptops somewhere in Asia were not the kind of security threat [the NSA] was established to detect. And movie studios weren’t the targets the American intelligence community was focused on protecting.” The result was a worldwide takedown of the company’s computer systems.

Proliferating Malware

The NotPetya code, the malicious product of Russian military hackers, ultimately hit two thousand targets worldwide and cost companies an estimated $10 billion. Among the worst affected were the U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck, FedEx’s European subsidiary, a French construction company, and Danish shipping company Maersk. Maersk, which lost some $300 million, salvaged its business only because a domain controller in Ghana already had been knocked offline when the malware struck.

Corporate Espionage

You’re probably familiar with how three Chinese hackers stole some 630,000 computer files related to the development and design of Boeing’s C-17 military transport plane, saving the Chinese government decades and billions in R&D. When the Chinese plane—the Xian Y-20—debuted at a Zhuhai air show, parked near the American C-17, the similarity between the two planes was inescapable. A gift to the Chinese from U.S. taxpayers.

According to a recent Wired article by Garrett M. Graff, “China’s extended campaign of commercial espionage has raided almost every highly developed economy, but far and away its biggest targets have been the military secrets of the United States.” He says many American companies were aware of the hacking, but have kept quiet to keep the huge China market.

What Next?

Such intrusions demonstrate that it isn’t enough to assume every company can (or will) sufficiently protect its own networks. “An individual company simply doesn’t have the resources or the capabilities to defend against a committed nation state attacker,” said Jamil Jaffer, founder of George Mason University’s National Security Institute in a recent Cipher Brief interview. Yet, for a host of reasons, government can’t do protect every business either.

Jaffer believes companies in key industries must start sharing threat data with each other. Though that’s against the grain, in a small way, it’s beginning to happen. Government may have a role, too, in some cases, depending on the target, the severity of the threat, and applicable law. But this strategy will take time, and as all these complex relationships and responsibilities are being debated and worked out, the hackers hurtle full speed ahead.

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Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.

All 50!

Welcome to Idaho

photo: pixabay, creative commons license

A highlight of our recent Yellowstone trip was the detour we took into eastern Idaho. I was excited because Idaho was my 50th state! Given the number of stickers plastered on the welcome sign, Idaho must be a notable destination for people from a lot of places!

When we stopped the rental van near “Welcome to Idaho,” I hopped right out to stroll back to the sign. That gave my six family members time to prepare a surprise. They slipped off their overshirts to reveal Idaho-themed T-shirts underneath. As we gathered for pictures, they gave me the ball cap below, a saucer-sized “All 50!” refrigerator magnet, and membership in the All Fifty States Club, signed by President Alicia C. Rovey. It’s hard to say which of us was most excited! Me, the family, or my new friend Alicia!

all 50 ball cap

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

I mentioned this forthcoming accomplishment to the watercolor instructor at the Old Faithful Inn. Turned out she’s been to all 50 states too. Her 50th was North Dakota. Apparently North Dakota is the last state for a lot of people (we can guess why), and the locals make a big deal of it—pictures, T-shirts, the whole deal. I suggested I get my cup of coffee free at the café in Driggs, Idaho, but no. Besides full-price coffee, the town also is home to the Teton Valley Historical Museum, a great lunch spot, and a lovely shop selling local artists’ work.

Michael Pollan’s fascinating book, The Botany of Desire, describes how the obsession with certain crops—apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes (to which list I would add tomatoes)—has from time to time created agricultural craziness. Pollan had convinced me that Americans’ love affair with the french fry had turned much of Idaho into an over-farmed, over-fertilized, and over-pesticided moonscape. Around Driggs, however, the farm fields, rolling terrain, and distant mountains were beautiful. Still, for lunch, I ordered a salad. Just another beautiful spot in the fifty!

Your Next Thriller: Idea Goldmine

The July 2018 issue of Wired is a treasure trove of ideas for thriller writers. Here are the ones that got my creative juices flowing.

satellite 2

photo: Alexas_Fotos, creative commons license

Space Wars and Daily Life
“The Outer Limits of War,” by Garrett M. Graff, which bears the provocative subhead “a new arms race is threatening to explode—500 miles above our heads.” A parenthetical factoid declares that 14 out of the 16 “infrastructure sectors designated as critical by the Department of Homeland Security, like energy and financial services, rely on GPS for their operation.” Things you might not expect, like ATMs, cellular networks, and credit card systems depend on GPS. And the satellite array that makes GPS possible is highly vulnerable to deliberate attack, not to mention the 500,000 pieces of debris, marble-sized and up, currently orbiting earth at up to 17,000 mph.

The All-Seeing Eye
In Steven Levy’s “The Wall,” Palmer Lucky’s portable surveillance towers use radar, cameras, and communications technologies to identify moving objects up to two miles away. The virtual reality component of the system tags objects as people or coyotes. Then it reports in to those who will do something about it. Such systems would have military uses, scanning the battlefield, and are being tested at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lucky’s virtual wall would cost about one-fiftieth of the proposed 30-foot high concrete structure under consideration at the border, with all its security, wildlife disruption, aesthetic, and property infringement downsides.

Bitcoins

photo: Mike Cauldwell, creative commons license

Cryptocurrency
“The Blockchain: A Love Story; The Blockchain: A Horror Story,” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. How the Tez went bad. Leaving aside the particulars of this long piece, a good thriller writer can expertly decode the most opaque problem. So I hope you’re working on a novel about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, so I can finally understand it.

Mission Possible?
Oh, and the Mission Impossible movie franchise technologies that have—and have not—achieved reality. Gecko gloves, yes. Covert subdermal implants, no.

That Plastic Gun Isn’t a Toy
Finally, check out this chilling video on the Wired website headlined “Legal Win Opens Pandora’s Box for Weapons.” Forget age requirements. Forget background checks. Forget gun control altogether. Thank you, DoJ.

Got the Horse Right Here!

horse racing

photo: TNS Sofres, creative commons license

It’s Derby week, and attention turns to things equine. The horses are huge, but run on the most fragile of ankles. The jockeys are small, but mostly heart. Racing is a quick way to burn money. No wonder storytellers have capitalized on its dramatic potential. This is a repost of my favorite horse books and screen entertainment, with the addition of Triple Crown, a crime novel by Felix Francis, carrying on his late father Dick’s call to the post.

Horse Heaven – by Jane Smiley. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, yet I found this novel way more satisfying. She’s developed a stableful of engaging characters as you follow the fates of several horses bred for racing, a risky proposition in the best of times. As much about people and their passions and predilections as about horses, of course.

Lords of Misrule – by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, this novel is set in the lower echelons of horse-racing, among people for whom the twin spires of Churchill Downs are a distant dream. She has an almost miraculous way of capturing the way horse people think and talk.

The Horse God Built – by Lawrence Scanlan. This one I haven’t read, but it was too tempting to include a book about Secretariat—“the horse God built.” Secretariat won racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973, with track-blistering performances. This nonfiction book is Secretariat as seen through the eyes of his groom and a story of friendship. This is one of six great nonfiction books about racing compiled by Amy Sachs for BookBub.

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. A heartwarming story, this production includes footage shot from the midst of a race—an unforgettable view of why this sport is so dangerous. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%, audiences 76%.

Luck – HBO. For the full immersion experience, try this nine-episode series, developed by David Milch. It’s all-star cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and, again, jockey Gary Stevens (who raced in the 2016 Kentucky Derby at age 53). The three touts, convinced they’re on track for riches, are priceless.

American Writers Museum: Chicago

book coversOn the lookout for something new and interesting to do in Chicago? Try the American Writers Museum, the first U.S. museum devoted to authors. If you are a writer, you may find it’s a tangible uplift. It both celebrates American writers and shows their pervasive influence on “our history, our identity, and our daily lives.”

The museum is huge in heart, if not in size, and, unless you’re one of those people who must read every word of every exhibit (in which case you’d better set aside a day or two), you can probably explore it in under two hours. Although it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, the museum nevertheless includes authors and works from throughout the nation’s literary history—poetry, song lyrics, speeches, drama, fiction, nonfiction, journalism,and more. The displays are well designed and captivating.

So many iconic American writers are associated with Chicago—from Studs Terkel to Nelson Algren to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Carl Sandburg to Sandra Cisneros—it’s fitting that there’s currently a special exhibition on the talent nurtured there, complemented by an exhibit of photographs by Art Shay of writers at work (and play).

When I visited, a school group was there, and it was amusing to hear the teacher explain the operation of a typewriter. “There’s this ribbon thing, see, and there’s ink on it . . . And then when that bell rings, you move the carriage back.” Numerous hands-on exhibits let museum-goers experiment and play with words. Poetry construction. Where words come from. Where writers come from.

You can vote for your favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird leads the list, followed by The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. My guess is the “voters” feel less confident about 21st century books and fall back on what they studied in school. That process needs an infusion of more recent stellar work. I’d like to see Jennifer Egan’s Black Box there. Kids could relate to a novel in tweets.

The museum isn’t just about the already-written, though. It also has an extensive educational program, including the Write In Youth Education program for students in middle and high school. And series of panels gave good advice about craft and process for writers of any age.

The AWM, which opened only nine months ago, has been chosen in a USA Today Reader’s Choice poll as “Best Illinois Attraction” and by Fodor’s Travel as one of “the World’s 10 Best New Museums.” Find it at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL 60601.

The Rouge: Industrial Architecture Icon

The Rouge, Michael Kenna

photo used wall-size to open the exhibit – © Michael Kenna

The Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibit of evocative photos of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, remains on display through February 11. British photographer Michael Kenna became enamored of the Rouge in the early 1990s—past the time when auto manufacturing there was at its peak. At that time and before automation, the plant employed some 100,000 workers a day—including my grandfather, his neighbors, and several of my uncles.

Kenna especially liked to photograph the Rouge at night and in frigid weather, when the temperature turns the heat and steam into clouds whose buoyancy contrasts with the solidity of the structures. The museum has a large collection of these photographs, which, in documenting this famous landmark by industrial architect Albert Kahn (“the architect of Detroit”), shows today’s Rouge and its “complicated status as a symbol of industrial decay and endurance.”

The Rouge was a mile long and took in raw materials from massive Great Lakes freighters at one end, and finished automobiles rolled out the other. It had its own steel- and glass-making plants, and its eight-towered Powerhouse produced enough electricity to serve a city of a million residents. My grandfather walked to work at the Rouge every day, and my father and his sibs swam in the Rouge River (not recommended).

As Kenna photographed, “Parts of the Rouge were active and quite dangerous with moving cranes, trains, and enormous containers of molten steel and slag. Other parts were disused and quiet, rusting and decaying, with vegetation growing in and around long-abandoned machinery.” Some of the vegetation is purposeful. Land around the Rouge has been turned into sunflower fields, with the flower-heads harvested to make oil that is used in today’s manufacturing processes.

It isn’t a huge exhibit, but the photos are so powerful, you can almost smell hot metal and hear the hissing steam and clanking machinery.

The Cheese Course

Cheese pairings

Recently, I took a local class on cheese appreciation. Great, something where I already have skills! Having a husband from Wisconsin, how could I not be? Look up Olsson’s Fine Foods online and you’ll find that the owner, Dutchman Rudie Smit, teaches numerous cheese appreciation and cheese-making classes. He’s a fount of knowledge and lot of fun. Highly recommended.

Our small group of enthusiasts learned the history of cheese—which became popular in part because the originating people from the Tigris-Euphrates area were lactose-intolerant, and cheese is easier to digest than plain milk—why certain cheeses are the way they are, how to pair them with wine or with sweet and savory accompaniments, and how to design an appealing cheese plate. This came in very handy over the holidays, when I inflicted elaborate cheese plates on a succession of dinner parties.

But who would have thought the class would provide inspiration for my crime-writing? Such as:

  • What really happened up when Pietr was alone up at the mountain hut, supposedly making the cheese?
  • Did Lady Fauxpas seal her fate when she insisted blue cheese be served with the bottle of fine champagne?
  • Where was the characteristic tweed pattern on the rind of the “manchego” that poisoned G. Lutton?

You see the possibilities. Say cheese!