Sunday, August 31, 2014

Travelling Light

By the time my next blog comes around in two weeks, I’ll be in the Eastern Mediterranean, crewing aboard a yacht belonging to some friends.

No, not this kind of yacht ...

Not a holiday by any means, though, because I have some ideas bubbling away for which sailing the waters of the Ionian will be very useful research. Plus, my role is foredeck gorilla. I will be hauling on things and jumping over the side to swim mooring lines ashore rather than lounging elegantly on deck in a designer bikini. (Erm, OK maybe not. After all, this is me we’re talking about)

Yeah, I know – it’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.

... this kind of yacht. In fact, this very yacht.
Much nicer.

So, with the trip less than a couple of weeks away my mind starts to turn vaguely towards packing. Only vaguely at this stage, because there seems to be a hell of a lot that needs doing before I can even begin to think about actually putting stuff in a bag.

The only carrier flying the route and schedule I need was Ryanair, and I’ve spent several weeks, off and on, wrestling with their website in order to book my flights. Each time, their system rejected payment and – surprise, surprise – the next time I tried it the prices had gone up. In the end, I had to bite the bullet and get the damn thing booked. Funny how it would let me leave the country with no problems, but didn’t want to get me home again. I wonder if this is a hint …?

 (For anyone who's never heard of the brilliantly talented Fascinating Aida, you need to watch their wonderful 'Cheap Flights'. I wonder why they sing this with Irish accents ...?)

I haven’t flown with Ryanair before but I’m hoping they have followed Southwest’s example of Cheap and Cheerful with the emphasis on Cheerful. I’ll let you know when/if I get back.

But, as I said, I’ve been starting to think generally about what I need to take with me, and how much space and weight that’s going to take up. Luggage allowances are down to about the eight-kilo mark – that’s just less than eighteen pounds including the weight of the bag.

I learned to travel very light fairly early in my career. When I was still working as a photographer and lugging film cameras all over the place, I had so many photographic bags that I ended up with hardly any allowance left for clothing.

Fortunately, I’ve always tended to buy clothes with the following questions in mind:

How easily does it wash?
How quickly will it dry if washed out and left overnight?
Does it look half-reasonable without needing to be ironed?

Because the Greek Islands have a very sunny image, you might be forgiven for packing a few lightweight T-shirts and a couple of pairs of shorts, but the evenings can get pretty chilly, so that means a fleece as well. Good because they are very warm without weighing much, but they can take up a lot of space in a small carry-on bag. My solution is to wear as much as possible on the plane and hope they don’t start weighing the passengers before boarding, or introduce a new rule that you’re only allowed two layers. And I remember the days when I could fly the Atlantic with two bags weighing seventy pounds each …

I get around the ‘no liquids’ rule by taking an empty bottle and then refilling it once I’m airside of Security.

These days I tend to take a stock of books on my smartphone rather than real paperbacks, although I’m likely to need a notebook more than reading material and for that nothing beats paper and pen.

I would usually take my own insect repellent, but with the restricted bottle size I may have to decant my usual concoction into old 35mm plastic film pots – that’s how I carry shampoo and conditioner.

Bearing in mind that it’s going to be hot, a pack of baby wipes which I can put in the fridge is always great. Lovely to be able to cool your face that way. Works well over here in a hot summer, too.

I take a couple of clothes pegs so I can wash stuff and not have it disappear over the side in a breeze. (Very useful for holding closed hotel curtains that don’t quite overlap in the middle, too.)
Clothes pegs

As this is a yachting trip I’m taking a pair of sacrificial gardening gloves – the ones with the stretchy cotton backs and rubber-coated palms. They’re great for grabbing hold of silted-up anchor chain and laying it neatly into the chain locker.

And just in case the worst should happen, I take a roll of Micropore surgical tape, which I can cut into DIY Steri-Strips to close a wound that really ought to be stitched. Can’t you tell I used to live a long way from the nearest hospital Emergency unit?

Off the top of my head, that’s all I can think of at the moment, apart from the obvious like clothes! So, folks, any travel tips you’d like to share? What do you never travel without?

This week’s Word of the Week is lethologica, meaning being unable to recall the precise word for something. And if you become obsessed with trying to recall it, this may lead to loganamnosis, which when you do finally remember it can become onomatomania, where you repeatedly use the word or where it intrudes into your consciousness, like getting a song stuck on constant replay inside your head. I’m sure there’s a word for that, but for the life of me I can’t think of it …

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Greece Has A History of Prophecy.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

I planned on writing about current times on Mykonos, predicting what might happen if certain things don’t, but decided to defer in consideration of the inauguration this evening of Konstantinos Koukas as the island’s new mayor. After all, it’s only fair to give him a week to whip things into shape. (I’m sure he’s laughing because he has a sense of humor—and will need one for his job.)  Na zesete.

Then I thought to go for humor, something to have you laughing your britches into teabags.  But my son surprised me with the news that his very first published magazine piece appeared Thursday on the front page of Men’s Health—titled “I Was a Weekend Carny.”  Believe me, it’s brilliant and funny.  Just like his father...okay, you’ve just seen about as much comedy as you’re going to get from this Siger today. 

So, out of ideas I turned to the gods for guidance. And they answered: “Go West, young man.”  I assumed of course they were talking to me, for to mega-thousand year old gods I’m just that. :) Then came the reason for all their flattery. They were talking about Delphi.  They wanted me to write about Delphi.

Well, it just so happens I’ll be heading up there (again) as part of my research on my new book for 2015 titled “Deli in Delphi: Hold the pickle.”  Don’t worry, Everett, I’m only foolin’ about the title.

So here’s a bit about Delphi, celebrated as the center of the earth by the ancient world.

It’s approximately one hundred-fifteen miles and a two plus hour drive northwest of the center of Athens.  There are different ways to go, a southern trip across the top of the Peloponnese, and the northern route I plan on taking that has me heading out of Athens on National Highway E75/A1.

Stay on the highway for fifty miles, and you’ll skirt Athens’ affluent northern suburbs and pass though what I recall as wide-open spaces, mountain passages, and a lot of farmland.  Get off at the exit for Thiva (Thebes to some of you) and head south for four miles before turning west on Route 3. Now you’re into the start of the final fifty-five or so miles to Delphi. 

Halfway there connect onto Route 48 at Livadia, a rural farming region’s capital city.  Skiers passing through on their way back and forth to Arachova––Greece’s equivalent of Aspen—rave about Livadia’s souvlaki and grilled meats.


Stop and try some, but don’t overdo it or the gods will be displeased.  Why, you ask?

Because “Nothing in Excess” and two other sage expressions––“Know thyself” and “Make a pledge and mischief is nigh”––are carved upon Delphi’s most celebrated site: The Temple of Apollo, dedicated to its patron God of Light, son of Zeus and Leto, and twin brother to Artemis; and home to the Delphic Oracle and its prophetic visions.

Frankly, I doubt from what I know of the gods’ carryings on, that Apollo or any of his crew had much to do with those carvings.

Ancient Delphi is quite a place. (You reach the archaeological World Heritage Site before the small town of modern Delphi.)  No matter how I might try, there’s no way I could do justice here to the history or continuing spiritual influence of that truly nonpareil place.  Stand along the Sacred Way on the southwest slope of Mount Parnassus, look out upon the Pleistos River Valley, and see for yourself what I’m saying.  Or check it out on Google Earth…only kidding, only kidding.

Delphi’s origins date back to neolithic times.  Though the Oracle held importance in pre-classical Greece—certainly as the nearby Gulf of Corinth grew in commercial importance—it was in Classical Greece after rededication of the Temple to Apollo in the 4th Century BCE that the Oracle attained true prominence in the Greek world and beyond. 

The Plan

A Christian King stamping out pagan practices destroyed the Temple and silenced the Oracle in 390 AD.

Apollo slays Python

Many myths surround Apollo and Delphi, but they all flow from the same premise: Ancient Delphi represented the navel of the mother of earth personified in the god Gaia, and Apollo slew Python, the son of Gaia while he stood guard over his mother’s navel. 

A version I’m particularly fond of has Apollo killing Python for trying to rape Apollo’s mother while he and his sister lay in their mother’s womb.  I like that one because it’s sort of a local boy makes good doing the right thing type of story…what with Apollo and and sister Artemis being born on Delos a mile away from where I’m typing this.

Priestess Pythia Prophecizing

But no matter what the version, at this point in the myth, slain Python ends up in a fissure and vapors released from his decomposing body find their way up into the sanctuary of Apollo to intoxicate the priestess (Pythia) attending the oracle, thereby allowing Apollo to convey his prophesies through her.   

I think I’ll stop now.  After all, Nothing in excess.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Ketchikan part two.

Pretend you are looking at a picture of Speckled Jim, the most famous carrier pigeon of all time.
Or a perky doo as we would call a pigeon here.

This is a blog written in adverse conditions. I’ve gone back to the good old days of  carrier pigeon, the halcyon days of smoke signals and these words are reaching the MIE blog site via one of those wee carts that run along rail lines, with two men (one of whom will be Buster Keaton) pumping away at the handles. To music.

Pretend you can see a picture  of the aforementioned wee handcart thingy,  the men will be wearing bowler hats, the track stretching to infinity beyond.

My internet is down.  Somewhere went on fire, all NTL virgin media email has crumpled. Twenty two minutes to open one email. I could fly round the world and show you all the pictures that were supposed to be in this blog in person quicker than I could upload them.

Imagine here that picture of superman zinging round the planet…. I could superimpose my own face on it. Supercaro.

So this is a pictureless blog but we are all writers with good imaginations so I am giving you some wee descriptions of what I would like you to imagine when appropriate!

Insert here a picture of me kicking Richard Branson up the …(insert any piece of his anatomy here).

The blog was going to be about Ketchikan, the south easternmost city in Alaska, population of about 8000.  On my travels I noticed that populations in Alaska half in the winter months but this is not so with Ketchikan for reasons that will become clear.

Recall some of last weeks pics. Houses on stilts over the creek.

It is named after Ketchikan Creek.  The Tlingit name for the creek is Kitschk-hin and the creek in question  was the ancient summer fishing camp for the Tlingit people. The actual town was established by Mike Martin in 1885 and the island it sits on was named Revillagigedo in 1793 by Captain George Vancouver.

Picture of Mr Vancouver here.

It has, famously, the world's largest collection of standing totem poles! As well as lots of Liquid Sunshine (rain). I read something very technical about measures of its ‘oceanic climate’  which basically said (weatherwise) Ketchikan was on a par with  Scotland or Northern Ireland. Rainy with cool but not frozen winters and mild summers. I would like to change that word ‘mild’ to the words ‘non-existant.’ But that  explains  why the population feel they can hang around.

Picture here the image of Stan trying to play golf at Moray in the rain, getting very wet and pretending he’s having a grand time. ( Actually the weather was kind to him but that image pleased my sadistic Scottish soul.)

As well as lots of films I’ve never heard of, Ketchikan has featured in ‘the Love Boat’ and ‘Baywatch’.

You may insert mental image of Pamela Anderson in that costume, or Mr Hasselhoff in those trunks or… Jeff are you still reading this or have we lost you already????

Ketchikan seems relatively crime free, everybody is probably too soaked all the time. But twenty years ago two tragic murders occurred. They are known as the Tarp murders as both murders wrapped their victims in tarpaulin in an attempt to delay discovery.

Murder one took place in the summer of 1991 when residents began to complain of foul smells and lots of flies buzzing around one garden. The police investigated and discovered the smell was emanating from a rolled up tarpaulin in the back garden of Dana Hilbish. She explained that her landlord had left her some fish there, and it was going off. For some reason the police did not check what actually was under the tarpaulin and it was only after more complaints, more flies and a few more weeks had passed, that the police realised the truth.

Under the tarp were the remains of Dana’s common law hubby,  Charles Dalby. They had four daughters together but had never been married. The story behind the murder is as old as time itself. Dalby found out his wife was having an affair and he wanted to win her back. She didn’t want to come back.

He had been killed by two gunshot wounds to the head. Dana had covered his absence by saying that he had gone to Hawaii. But Dana was no master criminal. Her prints were on the gun and the gun was still in the house. His blood was found in the living room with a distinctive spatter pattern that would be expected in a gunshot wound. Drag marks that showed he had been pulled to the garden and she had been seen by her neighbours, fiddling about with the tarpaulin.

 Dana’s counsel tried to blame the unnamed man she was having the affair with and she maintained her innocence throughout. She was sentenced to 99 years.

I read somewhere that she had been fully rehabilitated in jail and had become a keen gardener. She even trains dogs to aid the disabled. Before the internet carve up I found a quote from Dana about one of the dogs she trained, Sha Ren. This was reported in the Daily News in 2010. “She said being a trainer in the program taught her compassion and how to let go. ‘Sha Ren wasn't ever mine, but she'll always be here,’ Hilbish said, holding her hand to her heart.”

Just a year later, Dianna Wyatt disappeared. Her body was found 5 days later, wrapped in a tarpaulin, weighted down and left underwater in a log yard in Ward Cove. Friends knew that she had been concerned for her own safety, and had been planning a divorce from her husband Ronald. She had contacted a woman’s aid hostel and they had offered her a room there and then. But, like many women in that position, she turned it down maybe thinking that the next time she would get away before being hurt, or she could talk him down. Whatever her reasoning, it was a fatal mistake.

Ronald doesn’t seem to have been a master criminal either. He told his work mates that he had planned how he would kill his wife should the need ever arise and that his ideal method would be…. to wrap her body in a tarpaulin, weigh it down and drop her in the log yard at Ward Cove.

A security guard saw Ronald’s car at the mill just after Dianne disappeared, he even took the plate  number of it. Ronald’s story that he had just stopped by the river to relief himself just didn’t cut it. He was too close to the deposition site well within the time frame.

 He tried to blame the counsellor his wife was attending for her martial issues but  it was obvious to the jury that Ronald would lose his wife’s considerable assets if their divorce went ahead. He also got 99 years.

I was in Inverness last week talking to some school children. One girl, the class swot, asked if all serial killers were as clever as the media portrayed them. I answered that, by definition, the answer was yes. You have to commit three or more murders over a specific period of time to be a ‘serial killer.’  

Which means you have to be clever enough to get away with the first one. Or two. Or three.
She nodded thoughtfully. Her teacher told me later that she  was the brightest girl in the class.

Hopefully the strange mystical, magical world that is the internet will be back in order next week.

Caro Ramsay 29/08/2014

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Spiral of Silence

The Spiral of Silence is a concept proposed by political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann.  She was a pioneer of public opinion polling and market research in Germany, and she proposed the Spiral of Silence concept in the mid-seventies.  Essentially it concerns the effect of peer pressure in groups.  Her thesis is that when we find ourselves in a group – perhaps otherwise compatible – where we hold a view not shared by most of the group, we feel reticent to express our conflicting view.  Just how we know our view is the minority one is not obvious, but I imagine we have all had this experience in some context or other.  The spiral effect begins when someone firmly proclaims the majority view and receives support confirming the leaning of the group.  As support for that view is mustered, we find it harder and harder to oppose it presumably out of fear of ridicule, rejection, or isolation.  Eventually the opposing viewpoint is not put forward at all.

Elisabeth may have had some experience of this.  Before the war she worked briefly for the Nazi newspaper Das Reich; certainly the Nazis knew all about silencing dissenting views.  An extreme version of the Spiral may have been one of the reasons that ordinary decent Germans largely did not speak out against the atrocities.
One thing is clear: the Spiral of Silence is not good for a democracy where robust debate should lead to informed decisions.  A huge step in the right direction was the advent and popularization of the internet. 

Now information could be instantly in the hands of the people and they could make their views public.  One only has to think of the Arab Spring as a case in point.  Here were people expressing views way off the status quo, supposedly majority, view.  Why else does China close down blog sites (including this one), and even youtube, on sensitive occasions such as the anniversary of Tiananmen Square?  In particular, social media sites are seen as fora where alternatives views can be expressed in a relatively unthreatening environment.

Well, maybe not.  Yesterday a New York Times article entitled How Social Media Silences Debate covered an interesting report from the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University – Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’.  To quote the NYT: “Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs. It makes people less likely to voice opinions, particularly when they think their views differ from those of their friends…”  In other words, the Spiral affects groups on the internet too. 

I don’t suppose the conclusion is really very surprising when one thinks about it.  After all, social media are about generating online groups of friends, often with common interests and connections.  It seems reasonable that people would be just as concerned about the reactions of these virtual friends to their contrary views as they would be in other social groups.  Social media bullying and the like are well documented, and if anything easier for the perpetrators because they can hide behind some level of anonymity.  The report suggests that this is indeed the case.  More startling was the outcome that people who use social media regularly (multiple times a day) are actually more reluctant to express their views in the “real” world.

“The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different.  Internet companies magnify the effect, by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us,” was the NYT interpretation.

The authors, however, don’t go quite that far in their claims.  Their research was based on a reasonable sample of people (around 1800) interviewed about their social interactions around the topic of the Snowden disclosures.  This particular topic was chosen because the US is pretty divided on the issue so it is by no means obvious what the majority view would be in any particular group. (44% think it harms the public interest and 49% think it serves the public interest. Presumably the other 7% asked, ‘Who’s Edward Snowden?’)

This is hardly the religion-or-politics type of issue to be kept off the dinner table. Fully 86% of the respondents were willing to discuss the topic in a face to face gathering, yet less than half that number would be willing to do so on social media. Essentially none of the minority uncomfortable with the topic in group discussion would be willing to express a view on Facebook or Twitter.

Encouragingly, people were more likely to speak out in person or on a forum if they felt they knew a considerable amount about the subject, had a strong opinion, or high interest.  Nevertheless, the bottom line is that debate is no more encouraged by the internet – at least in the social media context – than in personal meetings.  Also the debates that did take place seem to have been rather low on content: only 15% of the respondents said they’d learned anything about the topic on Facebook whereas 58% had received information from broadcast media.

I could make a few comments about these outcomes in the context of my own views on social media, but I don’t think I will.  I think most of my friends would disagree with me...

Michael - Thursday

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Difficult times for le President

Difficult times for le President. Poor Francois Hollande - yesterday on the 70th anniversary of Paris' Liberation he was up in rainy Brittany, his glasses getting wet and laying damp wreaths on Resistant hero's memorials. In Paris he was having Manuel Vals, his appointed Minister of Interior of only a few months, dissolve his Socialist government (to exclude Socialist dissidents of his party who disapprove of his austerity program). This is the second time he's dissolved the government in his two years of office.
 Poor Francois has approval ratings of %17. He's not even seeing Julie Gayet his actress girlfriend anymore. What's le President to do with a %10 unemployment rate in France. He's even in trouble with pal Frau Angela Merkel - who has rejected French and Italian appeals to soften the Eurozone deficit targets which they have failed to meet. Sad since they've been such good friends up to now.
 However Frau Merkel has said 'nein' to the appeal and gone off hiking on the Campostela pilgrimage trail to Spain with other EU leaders. Why hasn't Francois been invited?
Here's a last of the summer vacation suggestion for le President :

Load that rucksack, grab that hiking stick and join her. It's not rainy in the south, it's a great workout, it's historical and you'll see some of your own country.
 Don't forget good hiking boots.
Try to remember that she likes sports and gets to go into the team locker room at the World Cup
 She networks all the time.
 She balances her budget and then some.
 She likes beer.
 She does selfies - she's a fun gal.

Maybe le President could have fun working a little of the Francois magic that worked on his girlfriends - Segolène, Valèrie and Julie. Maybe sharing a hiking experience with Angela would help soften her on the Eurozone, get you a tan, and a good workout.
 Cara - Tuesday

Monday, August 25, 2014

Kenya 2012: The Trip So Far in Photos

Here is what I can tell you today.  I promise you will hear more about this trip than you likely care to, but take a look at these:


A Visti to Karen Blixen's house

" the foot of the gong hills."

Lucy, my guide, and a portrait of Karen
Karen's house, now a museum.


Me, on my way to breakfast, looking very happy because...
....this is what I have just seen from the walkway.

At a delicious lunch under a baobab tree..

An ancient problem is investigated through social research.  A poll is taken:
"Which did you eat first, the chicken or the egg," he is asking. It ended in a tie!
Annamaria - Monday

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Guest Blogger: Gigi Pandian--"Sharing the Road in India: Making Way for the Elephants, Goats, Monkeys, Camels..."

Every other Sunday is our day for Guest Author Postings by mystery writers who base their stories in non-US settings.  We think it a great way of introducing our readership to new experiences and places.  We’re pleased to have with us today a writer I (Jeff) had the fun of meeting at this year's Left Coast Crime when I moderated a panel titled, Mystery Far Afield. So it's with great pleasure I introduce you to USA Today bestselling author Gigi Pandian who writes the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery Series and the forthcoming Accidental Alchemist mysteries. Her debut novel, ARTIFACT, was awarded a Malice Domestic Grant and named a “Best of 2012” debut by Suspense Magazine. The follow-up, PIRATE VISHNU, is now available. Gigi spent her childhood being dragged around the world by her anthropologist parents, giving her good fodder for her novels set in countries ranging from Scotland to India.

Welcome, Gigi!

Earlier this month, I read an article about how New Delhi is currently being overrun by rhesus monkeys. I’m lucky that I’ve never had my glasses stolen by a monkey while visiting the Indian capital, but reading about the thieving monkeys got me thinking about my various animal encounters in India—most of which have happened while traveling on modern highways.

On my last trip to India, I flew into the south Indian city of Bangalore, where my father and I were visiting family. We took an autorickshaw through the city streets, and one of the first things I saw is pictured in the image below: a goat riding inside an autorickshaw!

I should admit that the goat hadn’t hailed the three-wheeled taxi on his own. When my own taxi passed the goat, I was able to see that the animal was sitting next to his owner. (Or, as my father would say after his childhood in India caring for his family’s goats, it’s debatable which one is the owner...)

A more frequent sight than an animal sitting on a taxi seat is a larger animal serving as transportation, such as the elephant being ridden or a camel pulling a cart of goods.  

I live in urban California, a place where nobody would put up with being slowed down by animals on the road. But in India, a country far more populous and crowded, people make it work.

One of my favorite things about visiting different countries is seeing not only the famous sights, but ways of life that are so normal for millions of people while at the same time being so foreign to me.

It was on the highway in between Kanyakumari and Kochi, along the coast of southwest India, that my latest mystery novel came together. I’d already written a draft of Pirate Vishnu shortly before my last trip to India. The book is set half in San Francisco and half in south India, and I wrote it while living outside of San Francisco. Because India is an impossible country to forget, it was easy to use my memories to draft the book. However, once I stepped off the plane into the humid air and got onto the highway, I was overloaded with sensory details that made my head spin—and filled in key details for the book.

I had a great time getting slowed down on the road, because it enabled me to take in more of the country. To be fair, it’s not that Indians love being delayed by animals. Especially the animals who cross the road whenever they feel like it. 

I was glad that our driver kept this figurine of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, on his dashboard!

Guest Blogger Gigi Pandian––Sunday