Friday, January 30, 2009

Travel Agents

What they are, and as a protagonist.
By Pat Gulley

I’m a retired travel agent who has spent 40 years in the travel industry. I worked for two airlines and was a retail travel agent doing leisure and corporate when both were mandatory, but stayed in leisure when the business split. I also worked for a wholesaler. What’s the difference? Basically, the way travel is sold.

Corporate travel agents book business travelers: rarely more than an airline ticket, hotel and rental car. These are very fast bookings completed by the end of a call, and ready immediately to take another call. Airline reservations departments worked that way too. Many women with families like corporate because there are few worries to take home at night. Large corporate travel agencies were among the first to allow their agents to work from home, as long as they already had a home computer.

Wholesale travel companies create tours and packages, price them and then sell them to retail travel agents. Wholesalers publish those fabulous tour books travel agents hand out. At one time, many only sold through retail agencies, now they all have websites and you can buy direct. Whether to buy direct or contact a retail agency is a discussion for another blog. Would it interest you?

Leisure travel agents book vacations; everything from a short weekend jaunt to a long combination of tours or a ninety-day world cruise. At one time airline tickets were the backbone of their profits, but all that stopped when the airlines cut out commissions.
Needless to say, with my background it can’t be a stretch to see why the protagonist of my unsold novel is a travel agent. And since I worked for a world agency not a small mama/pop, I added in the problems that any ‘branch’ office has trying to make quotas and deal with problems when head office is thousands of miles away. Then introduce murder when downsizing is announced.

Travel agencies are governed by an organization called IATA. Its rules and regulations govern the operations of agencies and the qualifications of the agents, which includes who may or may not be a manager. If you deal with a travel agency, be sure they are members of IATA and the individual agent has an IATAN card.

I’ve read destination mysteries where the protagonist leads a tour and calls themselves a travel agent, when the description implies a tour escort. Escorts are hired by wholesalers to guide their tours and require certification too. An escort doesn’t have to have been a travel agent, but it sure helps. People who organize a travel group often called themselves the escort, but a more accurate title is group leader or coordinator.

Imagine my surprise when a literary agent’s rejection indicated that she didn’t think anyone but a diehard mystery reader would be interested in my protagonist because a travel agent wasn’t very interesting unless she was leading a tour to some exotic or interesting destination. Hmmm. We’re not supposed to argue with them no matter what they say, but the assumption that anyone can open a ‘shop’ and sell travel is a bad one. Or that the selling of travel doesn’t have as many fun, interesting or weird stories that a yarn, gift, doll, ceramics, or book store would have.

So, would a travel agent protagonist interest you? Are there travel related questions you’d like me to try and answer? NO, not where to find cheap airfares or hotels! My company closed 75 percent of its branch offices at the end of 2001 after the twin towers fell on our twin towers.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Are You Aiding Criminals?

Today we welcome Barry Award nominated author Felicia Donovan as our guest on Working Stiffs.

Are You Aiding Criminals?

Millions of people are unwittingly assisting criminals without even realizing it. The FBI estimates that millions of computers participate in what is known as a “botnet” and your computer could very well be part of it. A “bot attack” happens when your computer is hijacked by having malicious software (called “malware”) installed on it. This allows remote control of your computer to spread viruses, spam or even commit fraud. Once your computer is infected, it becomes part of a “botnet” or network of remotely controlled computers. The people who launch these attacks are called “bot herders.”

They use your computer to launch all kinds of criminal activity including passing spam, viruses, phishing schemes, and DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks where they basically tie up a network rendering it useless.

Beginning in 2007, millions of computers were infected with an e-mail Trojan-horse program called “Storm Worm.” Computers infected with the Storm Worm Trojan became botnets that were used almost exclusively to send out spam. Machines infected with the Storm Worm have also been affiliated with money mule recruitment e-mails.

Think about it for a moment. How else could cyber crime propagate across the Internet so quickly if it weren’t for the fact that millions of computers act as a pass-through gateway and actually aid in the propagation? That’s what bot herders are counting on – quick, pervasive attacks and launches using your computer as a part of their network so they can wreak as much havoc in the shortest amount of time. They are so clever at what they do that they can “virtually” change locations overnight by infiltrating thousands of computers at a time. It is not unusual for a bot herder to completely shift operations within a matter of days. This is why it is so difficult for law enforcement to shut these operations down. And you may inadvertently be helping them.

This is just one of the many topics we cover in CYBER CRIME FIGHTERS: TALES FROM THE TRENCHES. Many people have been shocked to realize that they are contributing to the propagation of cyber crime because their computers have been hijacked.

So how do you protect yourself from becoming victim to a bot herder?

1. Keep your operating system software (usually Windows) up to date by allowing Automatic Updates.

2. Run Anti-Virus programs. No excuses here. One of the best, AVG, is available for free at

3. Run anti-spyware (also free) from AdAware or SpyBot. These are free, but need the user to run them.

Don’t allow your computer to be host to cyber criminals. You wouldn’t allow someone in your home who has committed robbery, so why let them come in via the Internet if they are robbing others blind through phishing attacks.

Felicia Donovan is a law enforcement technology and cyber crime expert with over ten years experience in law enforcement. She has assisted in Computer Forensics cases and has been recognized by the FBI for her work. She is the author of THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY series of books and has been featured in many articles including Law Enforcement Technology Magazine. Visit her website,

Kristyn Bernier is a Detective with fifteen years experience who specializes in Internet crimes and undercover work. She is an investigator with the Northern New England Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and has received recognition for that work from the US Dept. of Justice. She specializes in cases in the areas of domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault and tracking sexual offenders. She has addressed Legislative Sessions in an attempt to modify and strengthen sexual predator laws.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Guo Nian (Chinese New Year) - China’s Spring Festival

by Wilfred Bereswill

I want to thank Annette for allowing me to post on her normal day. The subject matter seemed appropriate for this week.

I’ve received a considerable number of e-cards and emails from my friends in China for the celebration of the Chinese New Year or Guo Nian. The incoming Year of the Ox. That got me thinking about last year at this time. I was in China for two weeks before the New Year and planned on returning the Saturday before the celebration began. I found out the hard way that the Chinese New Year is not a good time not to be traveling in China for business.

The Chinese are wonderful people deeply rooted in family, tradition and superstition. They use the week-long Spring Festival to travel to the their family homes and celebrate the coming of the New Lunar Year. On January 26, 2009, out went the year of the Rat and in comes the year of the Ox. They eat Jiaozi (steamed dumplings), set off fireworks, and give money wrapped in red paper or placed in red envelopes. Although the business world recognizes seven days for the National Holiday, the entire process takes weeks to prepare for and to celebrate.

There are six major activities undertaken by the Chinese during the Spring Festival:

Dusting - This refers to year-end cleaning, which also carries the meaning of sweeping all “bad lucks” or “evil spirits” out of one’s house.

Pasting - To paste New Year pictures and the character of “Fu” (bliss) on gateposts, door panels and windows.

Inviting - To invite the gods of kitchen and fortune.

Staying up - In the past, for the old, staying up all night on the New Year’s Eve meant to cherish fleeting time, and for the young, it meant to pray for a longer life for parents.

Greeting - Greetings must be given to older generations and exchanged among the same generation.

Playing - By playing the dragon dance people pray to the god of the dragon for good weather and rich harvests.

On this holiday, 180,000,000 people travel to their homes, about fifteen percent of the total population. With this many Chinese taking to the highways, rails and skies, travel during this time of year is a bit of a chore and takes the patience of Job.

As I mentioned, I happened to be in China just prior to the celebration of the year of the Rat and to complicate matters, the week before the Festival was fraught with horrible weather throughout the midsection of the country. In GuangZhou, 600,000 rail travelers were stranded at the train station. They huddled under the highway overpasses to seek shelter from the 40 degree temperature and cold rain.

Yes, our car went right under this overpass. Right through these people. We were returning from a round of golf and our host thought it would be fun to see what kind of crowd was actually there.

I know because my route that day took me by car right through the sea of humanity. It took us two hours to go a mere one kilometer, with the driver using the bumper of the car to nudge people out of the way. Yes, I was thankful to have transportation at all. You may have to stretch your memory a bit, but it made the national news (not me and my driver pushing through the crowd.)

Outside of Wuhan and Shanghai, 100,000 travelers were stuck on trains in-route; going 20 hours without food or water as the electrical lines powering the trains shut down because of the heavy ice and snow.

All over China airlines delayed and cancelled flights stranding even more passengers at the airports. Again, I have firsthand experience here. I traveled from GuangZhou (situated in the far south of China) to Qingdao (perched on the coast of the Huang Hai, Yellow Sea in the northeast), to Harbin (in its frozen setting in the extreme northeast) to Beijing. Normally quiet airports were bustling with crowds. And when I mean crowds, I mean there is not one square foot of floor space unoccupied. I mean that the space we normally reserve as ours, between us and the person in front of us in a line would have at least ten Chinese squeezing in. The noise level is deafening and the uninitiated would definitely freak out.

A little more about lines in China. There are none. With the exception of immigration at the airport, lines just don’t exist in China. The rest of the world would consider it rude, but in a country of people that has had to scrounge and fight for sustenance, like puppies fighting for mother’s last nipple, the culture accepts the chaos. Normally calm people turn aggressive. I’ve seen a few arguments, one or two shoving matches, but for the most part, peaceful aggression. Even so, this is no place for the timid laowei (foreigner).

On my last day in China, I arrived at the Beijing airport. My travel was supposed to take me to Shanghai, then on to Chicago and finally St. Louis. So I set out for the domestic side of the Beijing airport, a big, but necessary mistake. I should have realized that I was in for a long day when at 7:00 AM it took twenty-five minutes to get through the toll gates at the entrance of the airport to the drop-off point.

That long, long, long day never got me to Shanghai, which was closed again due to weather. By noon, I realized that I would have to fly out of the country from Beijing. Another big problem. I was traveling on an American Airlines frequent flyer ticket and they only flew out of Shanghai. Calling my travel agent I found out that a one-way first class ticket was $13,000 on United and a Business Class ticket was a mere $10,000. I called my boss and he said to have a good time in Beijing for the weekend. Only there were no hotel rooms. I settled for a Coach ticket at less than $1,000. Don’t feel sorry for me, as it turned out, I flirted with the ticket agent (a beautiful, petite Chinese girl.) “Ni hen piao liang.” “You are very beautiful.” And “Ni de Yingyu hen hao.” “Your English is very good.” No sexual harassment laws in China yet. And go figure, I scored a free upgrade as a valued member of United Airlines highest level of Frequent Flyer.

I managed to fight the crowd once again and retrieve my checked bags.

Ever try to retrieve checked baggage?

Think about retrieving luggage you just checked on your best day. Now think about it when traveling in a foreign country and from people who don’t speak English and are at the end of their wits trying to satisfy a raging mob of people all trying to get to their destination in a country whose transportation system was all but iced in.
This is what I love about China. Many of them are caring and compassionate people. I nudged my way to the ticket counter and after a few minutes displaying lost puppydog eyes, a very nice... yes, a pretty Chinese girl again... helped me out. An hour of waiting and amazingly, I had my luggage. After rearranging my travel, I actually made it home on time. The paradox of arriving in Chicago before I left Beijing always confuses me; a thirteen hour flight with a fourteen hour time change.

This isn't in the airport, but this is a picture of my friends and I receiving a nice foot massage.

By the way, I was in the Beijing Airport for ten and a half hours. I had some extra RMB (Chinese money) so I got myself a bowl of noodles and a cold Budweiser, made at my brewery in Wuhan and then got a very relaxing massage.Reflecting back on that trip, I now realize that it may have been my last trip to China. I have some very good friends there that I may never see again and that hurts. Somehow emails just aren’t the same. This week, China is celebrating and my heart is a little empty because I can’t be there amidst the chaos to celebrate with them.

Happy Chinese New Year, everyone and may the Rat help us prosper.

Oh, say, can you see?

By Martha Reed

Whenever someone tells me they’ve read one of my stories, I make it a point to ask for feedback. I’m way past the point where I take things personally, and I believe that when I hear first person criticism or comments about my work that if I can learn from it, it will make me a better writer next time.

I heard one such comment over the weekend. The mother of a friend read my Nantucket mystery novel and said she wished I had detailed the characters better. She had trouble imagining what they looked like. That surprised me, because I’m very careful about delineating my characters and I deliberately try not to put too much information in my stories thinking that the reader will want to fill in some of the pertinent details themselves. The remark did make me go back though and take a good hard look at my characters, and since I have a story that continues across more than one novel, I decided I needed to create a character bible.

A character bible is a wonderful writerly tool. I started a folder with plastic sleeves, and whenever I come across a magazine advertisement with a model that catches my eye I clip it out and put it in my bible. Each of my characters has a page with their name on it, and the binder is filling up with visual information. Sometimes the people in the advertisements who represent one specific character don’t even really resemble each other but there was something about a glance or a look or even a pose that reminds me of one aspect of that particular character.

Sometimes I save pictures of movie stars. Personally, I think that’s a little like cheating although I see it all the time and I’ve used it myself. For instance, if you want a quick description you have someone in the book say: “He looked just like Paul Newman.” Easy fix.

Continuity Girl

An additional benefit to a character bible, especially when you write over a period of time, is you create continuity, especially among secondary characters. If Scott has auburn hair in book one, he doesn’t suddenly go carrot red later on. Characters with glasses can keep using them to make a point. And I’m proving the best use of this tool as I age; nowadays, when I forget exactly which type of car Sue drives I can easily look it up in my bible rather than flipping through the pages looking for the original text!

Monday, January 26, 2009


by Gina Sestak

Have you ever embarked upon a project, filled with enthusiasm, only to find yourself, a few weeks later, thinking, "What the *!%#* have I gotten myself into?"

That's how I've been feeling this weekend.

I mentioned a few weeks ago how much I loved the screenwriting class I took at Pittsburgh Filmmakers last semester. Flush with accomplishment -- I got an "A!" -- I decided to take another course. Well, one thing led to another and I ended up registered for two production classes. For anyone who doesn't know the lingo, in a production class, you actually have to produce stuff. Not like the producers you see credited on movie screens, thank goodness. No. You have to produce actual stuff -- class assigments -- homework.

Now, don't get me wrong. The screenwriting class required "homework," but crafting a three page scene every week seemed more like play to me.

I signed up for Motion Picture Fundamentals because, well, it's fundamental -- it's a prerequisite for many of the other courses. Besides, a friend of mine is also taking "Mo Fun," as it is abbeviated. We could go to class together. And, since Mo Fun requires working on a MAC and I had never in my life worked on a MAC, I heeded the suggestion in the course description and signed up for Introduction to Digital as well. So far, so good.

I don't mind going to class and doing the reading. Honest. I don't mind going to TA sessions or figuring out how to use a MAC (it's kind of cool). But my first Mo Fun assignment has me baffled. You have to understand that I am technologically challenged. Witness my inability to get the two camera images, above, to embed where I want them in the body of this post.

When I signed up for classes at a film school, I naturally expected that we'd be, well, making films. You know. With a camera like this:

[pretend the drawing of a movie camera is right here]

Instead, we're starting really basic: still photographs in black and white. With a non-digital camera. A camera that uses film. A camera like this:

[pretend the picture of the Minolta is right here]

Now, I took a photography course once. About 30 years ago. Since then, the pictures I've been taking have been the point and click kind. With my cell phone. It's hard to keep track of the film speed and fstops and shutter speed and light meter and focusing, all at the same time, not to mention depth of field issues. Plus, while Filmmakers lends equipment, it also imposes stringent rules about what you can have, and when you MUST return it and WHILE IT IS IN YOU POSSESSION IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. So I also have to worry about the lens and the lens cap and the padded case and the strap and the little list of things specific to this camera that must be kept inside the padded case.
So my problem is this: while keeping all that in mind, how am I supposed to figure out what to take pictures of?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Hope and Dreams


Kathie Shoop

While hope is the watch-word for the just ended political season, I think hope is something that lives inside artists every day of their lives.

Mickey Rourke's Golden Globe acceptance speech illustrates the way hope comes and goes with the weight of a battle ax when your craft often relies on the whims of others.

And even when writers feel especially hit by rejection, there is some pebble of hope buried in their skin, coursing through their blood, somewhere in their being or they wouldn't be able to go on with their work.

I think hope can be uplifting, but also a bit painful. Knowing that you can't stop writing even though you sort of want to isn't the best place to be. Perhaps that's why the moody, self-abusive image of artists came about. From witnesses seeing an artist at that point when hope settles as pain for a bit, before they swing back into quiet action and shape their work into something great.

I can't imagine not having dreams. I've had them for as long as I can remember, though they've changed considerably over the years. And I have to say I feel lucky to have found the work that gives me hope even when it's hard, that my work is to some degree who I am...I realize that's not always good, but for me, it works.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

American Idol--For Books

by Joyce

I've been watching the tryouts for American Idol off and on this week. I think the auditions are so much more entertaining than the actual show. You can always tell which contestant is going to totally bomb. It's always the one who brags the most about how great a singer they are.

On Tuesday night, Ryan interviewed a woman who had the most annoying laugh I've ever heard. The people who put the show together must have thought so too because they kept running clip after clip of her laughing. She spouted off that American Idol was her life, that she was the best singer they ever heard, etc. She even brought a portfolio of photos (one was a lingerie shot) and a CD she made. Although Simon, Randy, Paula and the new person (why is she there, anyway? They didn't need another judge.) pretty much thought she sucked, they sent her to Hollywood anyway. I still can't figure out why, unless it was for comic relief.

Another woman on the same night was a total train wreck. She dressed like she got her clothes out of a dumpster. She was carrying a folder full of wrinkled paper with songs she wrote, along with diagrams of correct breathing techniques and what muscles to use when you sing. Maybe she thought she needed to cram. I don't know. Inside the audition room, she referred to Randy as Simon, which didn't go over too well. Then she was one of those who wouldn't take no for an answer and they almost had to throw her out.

These people would make great characters in a book.

Which got me thinking.

What if agents and editors looked for authors like American Idol looks for singers? We think query letters and pitch sessions are traumatic. Can you imagine pitching your book to someone like Simon? Maybe I'm on to something here.

Instead of sending out letters and scouting conferences for that elusive agent or editor, we send a panel of them out to various cities. Hundreds of writers show up with synopsis and writing sample in hand. Out in the waiting area, Ryan interviews potential contestants. One of them is carrying a bound copy of a 2000 page long tome. He spouts that he's the greatest writer the judges have ever seen. He says his book will be an overnight bestseller. Guaranteed.

Train wreck. Guaranteed.

Finally a writer stands before the panel. Nice, neat one page synopsis that hits all the plot points. Perfect hook. Rich characterizations. The prose in the writing sample is music to their ears. They give her the news--she's going to New York.

Hmm. On second thought, that sounds a lot like the query process. Forget I mentioned it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Back to Work

by Annette Dashofy

A person can only take so much celebrating. I’m exhausted. First, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC Championship on Sunday and is headed once again to the Super Bowl. The Steelers Nation had one day to celebrate before being overshadowed by a little thing called the inauguration.


Has there ever been such a day in this country? My 88 year-old mother says she never watched an entire inauguration before. I have, but I usually lose interest after the actual ceremony. Yesterday, I couldn’t tear myself away from the TV.

I remember when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Yes, I’m giving away my age. I remember the screams of the girls in the audience that night. The screams of the crowds along the parade route yesterday reminded me of that.

I’m realistic enough to know it won’t last. Yesterday was about celebration. Today is about getting down to work. I hope President Obama is able to capitalize on the wave of love and approval to get something accomplished before the honeymoon is over.

It’s back to work for me, too. I accomplished very little yesterday. It’s hard to write while watching the country whooping it up on the television. So I’ll be playing catch-up all day while the President is busy putting the country back on track.

One thing has been playing on my mind this week and that’s the President’s call to service. There are so many worthwhile causes out there. I’ve always waged an internal battle about where to donate money. But time? That’s even more valuable.

Right now, of course, I’m volunteering a lot of time to Pennwriters to coordinate the 2009 Conference. But I don’t consider it as selfless service. More like selfish service. Want to network with New York agents and editors? Take on a writing conference. I have hopes of using some of those connections to boost my writing career.

In my mind, selfless service is something else. The only benefit you get is the feeling of helping others. So where should I donate my time?

My first thought is the Humane Society. I love animals. My Skye kitty came from our local shelter. But I’d probably weep over those poor homeless fur babies and I’d want to bring them all home. That would lead to divorce in the Dashofy household. Bad idea.

How about Habitat for Humanity? A wonderful cause and something I think I’d enjoy. However, I can’t hammer a nail to save my life. Unless it’s a thumbnail. I’m dangerous with power tools. But I’m a great go-fer.

Put Habitat on the “Maybe” list.

I have given serious consideration to volunteering at the local food bank. Also, our local library.

Lots of places can use help. What about you? Do you volunteer anywhere? If not, are you willing to consider it? Where do you think your particular skills would best fit in?

And if you feel a letdown after all the celebrating, remember the Super Bowl is only a week and a half away. Hopefully Pittsburgh will have something else to celebrate on February 1st.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

By Pat Remick, guest blogger

For many people, today’s historic inauguration of Barack Obama is personal. I count myself among them.

I’m from New Hampshire. We have a law requiring our presidential primary to be the first in the nation. That’s why every candidate wants our votes – and wants ‘em bad – even though NH’s population is smaller than most large cities, including Philadelphia.

I’ve spoken with our new president in person three times, including the day he virtually put me in a headlock on the sidewalk. We’ve also chatted by phone. I attended his rallies, volunteered for his campaign and housed his supporters. One son is at the inauguration today while the other remains on police cadet inauguration alert.

So today is very personal for me. I would have made the pilgrimage to DC, too, if it wasn’t for my great aversion to port-a-potties. I’m also not fond of standing in the cold for endless hours surrounded by record-sized crowds, especially when the view on my 22-inch TV will be the same as the Jumbotron screens they’re watching.

Nonetheless, there won’t be any mystery writing, or much other work, done today as I join millions across our nation and around the world in observing this momentous occasion from afar.

When Barack Obama solemnly raises his hand to take the oath of office, I will rejoice not only for him, but also for what this day means for America. No matter what your politics might be, today should prove that anyone -- including a biracial man raised by a single mother from Kansas – truly can be president.

When I first met Barack Obama on a cold December day in 2006, he was ostensibly promoting his new book, “The Audacity of Hope.” During his “reading” (what the politicos called that initial pre-presidential primary foray into frigid and 97 percent white New Hampshire), he spoke of his belief that although it can be more difficult to remain hopeful, especially in the face of difficulty and uncertainty, it was time to end to the partisan politics dividing our country.

As he spoke, he nervously moved one foot back and forth behind the podium he was gripping as he faced a curious crowd. On a similar snowy day one year later, there were no such signs of unease as he, wife Michelle and Oprah Winfrey electrified a crowd of 8,500 in the largest political rally in NH history.

He returned to New Hampshire many times during the campaign, as did several of his opponents. The story about the NH voter who was asked if he liked a certain candidate and responded: “I don’t know – I’ve only met him three times” is no joke for many of us.

When I unexpectedly encountered Obama during a campaign stroll, I confronted him about my inability to make contact for a story I was working on for the AARP Bulletin. At one point during the tirade, he put his arm around my neck and turned me toward the cameras chronicling his every step. It felt like a headlock and I wondered if he was restraining me because the Secret Service hadn’t. But he promised he would call me and a week later, we chatted for five minutes about caring for older relatives.Months later, Annie from Wisconsin and Tommy from Maryland arrived on our doorstep to work for him and progressive causes in the general campaign. They were amazed at the amount of contact we’d had with a man they’d never met, but had willingly left their homes and jobs for in order to spend 18-hour days canvassing in an unfamiliar state and sleeping in a stranger’s house. I suspect they’re too ecstatic to feel the cold in Washington as they watch the swearing-in today.

After all, it’s personal for them, too. How about you?

When she’s not meeting presidential candidates, Pat Remick is an award-winning mystery and non-fiction author. Visit her “It’s All Novel Material” blog at or her web site at

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Close Encounter of the Freaky Kind

By Wilfred Bereswill

I’ve always been enamored by the possibility of life beyond Earth. Life. Somewhere between microorganisms and multi-celled beings.

In January 2004, two solar powered vehicles landed on Mars with some kind of weird air bag to soften the blow of landing. NASA called them Opportunity and Spirit; Mars Rovers. They were sent to for four specific goals:

  • Determine whether Life ever arose on Mars

  • Characterize the Climate of Mars

  • Characterize the Geology of Mars

  • Prepare for Human Exploration
    • They had a life expectancy of 90 days. But some things actually exceed expectations. Five years later, Opportunity and Spirit are still roaming Mars. Still taking pictures, analyzing surface conditions and sending back data.

      Past or present life on Mars? Well, there are no pictures of little green men and I think the data can be interpreted many different ways.

      Another mystery which has been the subject of countless books, articles, movies, documentaries and speculation in general is Area 51. There is something situated at Groom Lake, Nevada.

      The most speculated of all conspiracies is that Area 51 houses the remains of visitors from outer space. I doubt you or I will ever know the truth about Area 51. I’m not even sure if there’s a “truth” to be known about it.

      Is there intelligent life out there? I believe it would be arrogant of us to believe that we are the only beings in the vast universe capable of independent thought. But how intelligent? Could there be a society smart enough for intergalactic travel? Smart enough to take a ride on a spaceship and come to earth?

      And the bigger question is, where the hell am I going with all this?

      Well, a couple of weeks ago a wind turbine owned by Ecotricity in Lincolnshire, England was damaged overnight. Cause of the damage? UNKNOWN. However, that night, strange lights appeared in the sky around Lincolnshire. Speculation is that the wind turbine was damaged by UFOs. No other explanation seems plausible.

      Creepy, huh? Again, what does this have to do with me and why am I writing about it?

      The night before these strange lights appeared in the skies over Lincolnshire, my wife and I saw a phenomena that, honestly, I can’t explain. Now, I know what you’re thinking. "What were you drinking that night?" That’s the first thing my mother-in-law asked when we told her the story. Yes, we were coming back from a casino at 10:30 PM, but neither of us had a thing to drink. Nothing alcoholic that is.

      Before I go into the story, I will reiterate, I’m an engineer who believes there is always a reasonable explanation for things. I don’t believe in the supernatural, and I’m very skeptical of stories that sound suspicious. I’m pragmatic. And believe me, I’ve been wracking my brain for a logical explanation.

      My wife and I were driving on Interstate 270 on the outskirts of St. Louis when off in the distance was an almost blinding flash of light. It seemed miles away, like a bomb exploded just below the clouds. No sound, but then the windows of the car were up and we were traveling 65 mph. The entire eastern sky seemed to brighten, and within three or four seconds it was over. Three miles down the road, it happened again. This time much, much closer. Almost overhead.
      Okay, the first time I was intrigued, now I’m thinking, “What the hell was that?” I’m puzzled, but, fireworks, maybe?

      Within a minute, the area behind my car lit up. I mean right behind the car. Yeah, like a search light on a helicopter was shining in our back window. The lights in my rearview mirror disappeared. No sounds, no visuals. Just a blinding light.

      My first instinct was to pull over; stop. My wife told me to get the hell out of there and speed up. The remainder of the ride home was uneventful, but let me tell you, I was freaked out and honestly, that doesn’t happen much.

      The next morning there was nothing in the newspaper or local news. No reports of unusual sightings. No lights in the sky. Nothing. Not until the next day when the wind turbine was damaged in England.

      The only comforting thing that I have is that if I hallucinated the whole thing, then my wife shared my delusions.

      How about you? Anything you can’t explain ever happen to you?

      For the record, I have an interview for a job this morning, so I’ll be back later today. Wish me luck.

      Friday, January 16, 2009

      Working with teak oil, or not

      With so many of us buried under snow and freezing body parts off, what better time to take a break and set sail. Please welcome guest blogger, Norma Huss.

      By Norma Huss

      How do you keep a sailboat spiffed up? Some sailboats come with teak, a lovely, long-lasting wood that requires a lot of care if you prefer the soft luster of oiled wood. There’s the sanding, the applying of teak oil, and the hand-buffing that removes excess oil and preserves the surface.

      My husband and I both loved that natural sheen on our sailboat’s teak. And, I’d committed to what one could consider housework in two homes. However, the surfaces inside a house are not exposed to the outside weather of sun, wind, rain, ice, and snow. Inside, one does not think about painting the cupboards or replacing floors for several years.

      Sailboat maintenance is another ball of wax. There’s that teak. My husband researched teak upkeep. He didn’t consider allowing the teak to weather and turn gray. He rejected, as well, the overly shiny varnished look. He studied the various available oils, the good and bad points of each brand. He chose one and spent his anchorage hours on the teak. He began to teach me how to apply teak oil as well as he did. I tried.

      I could certainly preserve the teak on the hand grab rail on top of the cabin. First I carefully sanded. Since the rail was so full of small angles, I used a cloth to wipe the oil onto the teak surface. Then, using a separate, clean cloth, I rubbed. And rubbed. I moved around to get at the wood from new angles. I supported my free hand on a cloth to protect the white fiberglass surface. And rubbed some more. Finally, I was rewarded with a single, lovely section of hand rail, free of excess oil. I wiped the sweat from my brow and went on to the next part.

      After an hour, I proudly exhibited the full length of the teak rail glowing in the sunlight. And discovered something like twenty greasy spots on the white, fiberglass cabin roof.

      “What’s this?” my husband asked.

      Seems like I’d used a well-oiled cloth to protect the fiberglass from my oily hands.

      However, there was an upside to this story, in fact two upsides. I loved to cook, my husband loved to keep our boat spiffed up. The galley became my domain, the teak his. Division of labor.

      And the second benefit? I discovered a young woman who loved polishing teak as well as, or even better than my husband. Not only that, but she happened upon bodies right and left, and developed an infinity for solving the crime of murder. Great attributes in a friend of a mystery writer, wouldn’t you say?

      Okay, so actually, I invented her. She’s my amateur sleuth in one and a half unpublished books. She’s pushing hard to get that second one finished. Do you suppose she knows she’s a product of teak oil and an overactive imagination?

      Norma is a wife, mother, grandmother, and writer of mysterious manuscripts. She has had short mysteries published, but none - so far - of her full-length MSS. As for working, she's been a secretary, death-claims girl, museum docent volunteer, screener for lazy eye, and holder of various woman’s club offices.

      Her interests other than writing are learning new things, boating and travel, reading, photography, grandchildren, and cooking (which accounts for the recipes included with some of her manuscripts).

      Thursday, January 15, 2009

      January's Not So Bad...

      by Joyce

      As I sit and write this, it's snowing like crazy outside. It's damn cold. The high in Pittsburgh on Friday is supposed to about eight degrees.

      But I'm going to look on the bright side and try and come up with some reasons why January isn't so bad. (Notice I said try to come with reasons.)

      January is the first full month of winter. If it wasn't for cold winters, we wouldn't appreciate the summer so much. Think about January next July when you're sweating and complaining about the heat. And don't even tell me you'll be happy when it's 90 degrees. You know you'll be whining like everyone else.

      You can wear all those beautiful sweaters you bought for 75% off after Christmas.

      Ditto for the slipper socks.

      The heavy coats hide the evidence of all the Christmas cookies you ate.

      You can play "See How High Your Spouse Can Jump" when you touch him/her with your frozen toes. You get extra points if they jump all the way out of bed. Add more points if it's accompanied by a screech.

      January White Sales. You can buy that tropical looking bedspread you've had your eye on. Add mosquito netting and some Caribbean music and you can pretend you're in Jamaica.

      Snow shoveling is good exercise. So they say.

      You burn more calories when you shiver.

      Spring begins in March, which comes after February, which comes after January.

      And last but not least, you can't go anywhere so you get more writing done. After you check all your favorite blogs and play solitaire until you finally win a game, that is.

      Okay, everyone. Give us some more reasons to appreciate this frigid, gloomy month!

      Wednesday, January 14, 2009

      California Dreamin...

      …on such a winter’s day.

      By Annette Dashofy

      I’m sick of winter. I always am by mid January, but it seems a little worse this year. Maybe because the snow and cold started earlier. I don’t appear to be alone in my winter doldrums either. Everyone I’ve talked to has complained about it. My brother recently returned to the Pittsburgh area after a visit to Florida. He told me he got in at 1:30AM and by 1:31AM was ready to head back south.

      January is the dark month. The Christmas lights are mostly gone. Decorations have been packed away. Those left out seem a tad faded and abandoned. Holiday orphans. For the most part, everything in southwestern Pennsylvania is shades of gray.

      This makes it the perfect time of year for two things: seed catalogs and vacation plans.

      I love seed catalogs with their promise of color and life. Plan your dream garden and order today.

      However, I know full well I’ll likely kill everything I plant. I start out in the spring loving the feel of earth in my fingers. I tenderly clear away the mulch, trim away the dead stems (should have done that last fall, I know, I know) and plant the seeds. Then it rains for three solid months and the seeds rot. Or I get busy and don’t take the time to pull the weeds that choke the poor hapless seedlings to death.

      No, I always WANT to be the kind of diligent, compassionate gardener that my dad was, but it rarely pans out.

      Which brings me to vacation plans. My husband’s company sends home a vacation request form every January to be filled out and returned by the end of the month. This year’s form is sitting on the end table like one of those previously mentioned abandoned Christmas decorations. We both know we need to get at it, but so far we’ve only talked about the possibilities.

      First off, I’m limited until AFTER the Pennwriters Conference. Much as I might like to, I can’t bug out in the weeks leading up to the May conference and say “see you all later!”

      However, in the weeks FOLLOWING the conference, I’m thinking long and hard about packing up my cat and moving into our camper, which by then will be parked on its new permanent lot in Confluence. Ah, Confluence. A quiet little town with hiking trails, a lovely river, a convenience store…and NO Internet or cell phone service. At first, I cringed at the thought of being so isolated. Now the appeal of it is growing on me.

      But a real vacation (and I think I’ve mentioned this here before) involves hotels and restaurants and NO cooking. Let the real dreaming begin.

      Hubby wants to go to Fort Niagara for a reenactment over the fourth of July. I’m game. Especially since the set up is VERY primitive and you have to apply and be accepted. Blah, blah, blah. What that means is HE will apply, be accepted, and camp under the stars without so much as a tent, while I will check into a lovely nearby hotel and drive over to visit him and take photos during the day.

      I’m also permitting myself the luxury of dreaming of Colorado.

      Since I was a kid, I have loved the West. I’ve never been further west than Indiana, however. So maybe this will be the year. Hey, Donnell, do you have a guest room for us???

      And if Indiana turns out to still be my western limit, there’s Bouchercon ’09 in Indianapolis.

      I love the Mamas and the Papas and California Dreaming, but the truth be told, I don’t see myself getting quite far from home THIS year.

      I am open to suggestions, though. Where do you dream of traveling to in 2009? Are you headed to warm climes or do your tastes run more toward an Alaskan cruise? Let’s escape the gray winter doldrums and fantasize. Tell me your vacation dreams. Maybe something will strike my fancy.

      Tuesday, January 13, 2009


      By Martha Reed

      I had a wonderful time at the Hallie Ephron workshop the other night and one thing Hallie said really stood out for me. She mentioned a writer friend who had completed and submitted a manuscript and the copy editor told the author to ditch the first seven chapters, just strike them off and start the story there, at that fresh point.

      Now, I don’t know about you, but writing seven chapters would have taken me three or four months of solid effort and I probably would resist such a suggestion. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to agree with the idea because I ran across a similar happenstance with my first novel. I spent months – literally months – crafting and honing and polishing my opening chapter and had a dreadful realization about halfway through the manuscript that I needed to kill that chapter after all my hard work.

      That was when I learned to follow the suggestion of previous writers and just blow through my manuscript until I got the whole story down and THEN go back and start the editing process. I admit that with the first novel I was so amazed that I was even actually writing something that long it was enough for me but I have learned since then not to concentrate so much effort on perfection because IT WILL CHANGE – probably more than once – before the whole thing is over.

      I learned this lesson again on Sunday morning. I’m not going to give anything away, but I have a set up between a couple of characters and all along I knew that one of them (Character A) was evil and blackmailing Character B. I thought that the blackmailing would be hateful enough (if slightly clich├ęd) but as I was working deeper into Character B I realized that this person was such a complete alcoholic Character B doesn’t even remember what happened that eventful night.

      Well, I thought, that’s torn it because how can you be blackmailed for something you don’t even remember doing and then the twist came to me, a way to make it even more deliciously evil – Character A knows Character B doesn’t remember what happened and is using the blackout to extort money on the pretext of actually doing good.

      Now, if I can make that clear to the reader – my next challenge – my story will take on something fresh while adding a layer of depth to Character A as well as to Character B. Insights and inspirations like this are why I love to write.

      Of course, going back to Chapter 3 to edit out the blackmail bit is annoying but as they say, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over – and then I’ll hand it to a copyeditor and edit it some more.

      Monday, January 12, 2009


      by Gina Sestak

      One week ago today I had the unnerving experience of speaking to our local chapter of Sisters in Crime on the subject of screenwriting. I say unnerving because I know practically nothing about the subject. My claim to expertise comes from a lifetime of movie viewing and one (one!) class, an introduction to screenwriting taught by Lorraine Heidekat at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Still, I was willing to share the little bit I know.

      Screenwriting is very different from novel writing. You don't need to tell nearly so much. In a movie, the audience can see what Scarlett O'Hara's dress looks like. The costume designer will figure that out, so you don't have to write a detailed description. Nor do you have to spend pages developing characters -- the actors do that, using your words. In a book, you tell the story your way, and maybe an editor or two suggests revisions. In a film, dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of skilled people stand between the screenwriter and the finished product. I like to think of the screenplay as a seed from which a movie grows.

      Screenwriting is different from playwriting. In a movie, you can see the Eiffel Tower; the characters don't have to tell each other they're in Paris. And a monologue that might hold your attention in a theater can be deadly boring on the screen. A movie needs more action while most plays consist mainly of dialogue.

      Screenwriting is an art and, like most arts, it helps to view the work of other artists. I'm not just talking about watching films. I'm suggesting reading screenplays. There is a website where links to the screenplays for hundreds of movies are posted: It's fun to watch a film, then go read the screenplay and see how the writer(s) put the action and dialogue down in words. Try it and tell me what you think.

      Friday, January 09, 2009

      Long Live the King

      by Lisa Curry

      Yesterday, January 8, 2009, was Elvis Presley’s birthday. He would have been 74, had he not self-destructed in 1977. I was not quite 14 then, and he was a sweaty old fat man in a polyester jumpsuit.

      Last evening, while watching a bit of Elvis by the Presleys on TV, I learned with a shock that the sweaty old fat man was three years younger than I am now when he died.

      At his worst, he still had a great face. When I was young, my mother had the Blue Hawaii album, and looking at the cover, even at age 7, I thought Elvis was the most beautiful man God ever created. I still think that might be true.

      Next week I have to make another trip to Memphis for business. Maybe this time, I’ll actually work in that visit to Graceland I’ve never quite managed to make time for.

      Happy birthday one day late, Elvis, and long may you reign.

      My favorite Elvis song is “Burning Love.” What’s yours?

      Thursday, January 08, 2009

      Motivational House Cleaning

      by Joyce

      Is anyone else having trouble getting motivated this year? I know this is most peoples' first full week back to work, so those of you in that situation have a good excuse. Those of us at home who are supposed to be writing during the day have to work a little harder at coming up with good excuses.

      Lately, I've been finding everything else that needs to be done around the house instead of writing. I've cleaned out cupboards, drawers, and the laundry room. I've reorganized my books, CDs and DVDs, making sure they're all in alphabetical order. I've updated my CD and DVD lists on Excel. I'm in the process of cleaning out the file cabinet and getting rid of papers we no longer need. I'm thinking about reorganizing the attic next, complete with an Excel spreadsheet cataloging the contents of all the boxes.

      I'm blaming it all on January. Who can write when it's so dull and gray outside? I'm sure I could force myself to write something--anything--but it would probably turn out to be crap. I can't sit and make myself put words on the page when I know they won't be any good. I've never been able to do that.

      But I have noticed that even when I'm "redding up" as we say here in Pittsburgh, I'm constantly thinking about the book. I don't have a real outline this time around, so a lot of things are up in the air. Every time I'm sorting laundry, I'm also sorting all the "what ifs" rattling around in my brain.

      So, although it seems like I might be procrastinating, maybe I'm not. Maybe this is all just part of the process. Maybe plotting and a clean house go hand in hand.

      I don't know. Maybe I'll have a better idea when February roll around.

      In the meantime, how are you faring so far this year? Making any progress? Or is your house as clean as mine?

      Wednesday, January 07, 2009

      Dinosaur Bones

      by Annette Dashofy

      When I was in fifth or sixth grade, our grade school took my class on a field trip to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. In hindsight, they must have been insane, setting a bunch of prepubescent country kids loose in the city. At the time, it was one of the best days of my young life. I’d never been to the museum before.

      My best friend and I wandered the massive structure in search of one display in particular.


      But we couldn’t find them.

      I remember stopping at the museum gift shop to ask if they had dinosaur bones. The sales clerk thought we meant for sale and said no.

      What? A museum with no dinosaur bones?

      I don’t remember how, but we did eventually find the dinosaur exhibit.

      I’ve been to that museum many times since then. We make a yearly winter pilgrimage into the Oakland area of Pittsburgh for our annual visit. Why winter? We have summer activities (biking, horseback riding, outdoor activities in general). But in the winter, we move to indoor activities. Like museum hopping.

      My first stop is almost always the dinosaur exhibits to see the dinosaur bones.

      The Carnegie recently revamped the dinosaur exhibit. Somehow, they determined they had some of the beasts standing upright that should have been on all fours. Or visa versa. I don’t know or care. They’re all damned scary regardless of their stance. This was my first visit since the exhibit re-opened. Here are a few of the dinosaur bones we saw.

      With my love of dinosaur bones, you may find it surprising that I’ve never seen the movie Jurassic Park or even read the book. Why? The bones scare me enough! I don’t really want to experience that time period or any of the creatures from it with flesh covering those skeletons.

      No thanks.

      So do you love dinosaurs? If so, how far back can you trace that passion? I remember having a plastic brontosaurus bank courtesy of our local Sinclair gas station. Now Sinclair has gone the way of their mascot. Except the oil company doesn’t have an exhibit in the Carnegie Museum.

      If you don’t particularly care for dinosaurs and their bones, do you enjoy hanging out in museums? Which exhibits do you make a beeline for?

      Tuesday, January 06, 2009

      The Whole Truth

      by Kathy Miller Haines

      It’s happened again, another “memoir” cancelled because it was proven largely untrue. This time the offender is Herman Rosenblatt. His book Angel at the Fence told of his imprisonment at Buchenwald and how a young girl used to throw him apples over the concentration camp’s fence. Many years later they met and married. In fact long before he had a publishing deal, Rosenblatt’s tale was touted on Oprah as one of the “greatest love stories ever told.”

      Multiple appearances on the show led to an eventual book deal with Penguin. It wasn’t the publisher’s in-house fact checkers who realized something was amiss with his story, but Holocaust scholar Kenneth Waltzer who realized that the layout of the camp would’ve made such repeated encounters impossible, not to mention that the plentiful supply of apples the girl had access to (an apple a day for seven months) couldn’t have existed during a time of heavy German rationing that followed a particularly harsh winter.

      While Waltzer’s explanation for why the story rang false makes the fraud seem obvious in retrospect, it’s not hard to imagine why editors overlooked the problems with Rosenblatt’s book. If a story is artfully told, or if enough of it feels true, we are quick to ignore those little inconsistencies that might otherwise draw our notice. And if the story is about one of our sacred cows, we are even more loathe to question its veracity. After all, why would anyone lie about the Holocaust? Especially someone who really did experience it first hand?

      Because that’s what makes Rosenblatt’s deception particularly difficult to swallow: he really is a Buchenwald survivor who was imprisoned during the years he claimed. And rather than telling that no doubt extraordinary tale, he felt like he had to puff up his story and make it a little bit more interesting. In fact, the whole saga apparently began when a newspaper solicited readers for Valentine Day tales of how they met. You can almost picture Herman trying to make his story as high concept as possible in hopes of winning the prize. Not only does he set it in the Holocaust, he puts apples in the plot so the story isn’t just tragic, it’s biblical.

      As a fiction writer, I’m always fascinated by these tales of memoir deception. Perhaps it’s the publishing market that’s caused it – after all, non-fiction gets bigger money. Or maybe the public really wants bigger, more outlandish stories before they plunk down their hard-earned dollars. But my own appetite for memoir has waned over the years. And I find that nine times out of ten, I learn more insights about the human condition by picking up a really well-written novel than I do by looking for those covers that promise me a true story.

      So what do you think drives these kinds of deceptions? Has the publishing business created this monster, or something else?

      Monday, January 05, 2009

      My Apologies

      by Wilfred Bereswill

      My apologies. My schedule turned busy this weekend and this morning I had an appointment to complete my severance from Anheuser-Busch. I dug through my archives and decided to leave you with a short story I wrote some time ago.

      The following is a short story I wrote while on a particularly long trip in the center of China. It’s long, but I hope you enjoy it.

      T.I.C.It’s a land shrouded in mystic, always luring the adventurous, but mostly out of reach. It’s a land deep in history–ancient history–as rich, as romantic, as bloody as that of Europe and the Middle East. It’s culture is deeply rooted in it’s past, but now change is running rampant over the land. This Is China or TIC.

      It’s the largest English speaking country in the world and it’s not the United States. It’s the largest beer drinking country in the world, and it’s not Germany. It’s the fourth largest county in the world, area-wise, and the largest, population wise. It has 55 distinct ethnic minorities and over 200 unofficial dialects. T.I.C. or This Is China.

      For six months, armed with a few polite, badly pronounced Chinese phrases, I had the pleasure of roaming through China with a small team to look at breweries for potential joint ventures. On this particular day, I find myself deep in the Shanxi Province, the fringe of China’s Wild West–a coal mining belt with few redeeming qualities. This day, was to be a travel day and what started out as a seven hour trip from LinFen to ZhenZhou City; ended up being a twenty-five hour quest to see Hukou Falls; the 2nd largest waterfall in China. On the map, it’s merely inches off the highway.

      This is a large Jin Bei that we used on much of the trip. The actual Jin Bei for this trip was its baby brother.

      We traveled for two hours on the main highway before deciding on the short scenic detour. That was four hours ago and we’re still climbing through the LuLiang Mountains. I ask our interpreter how to say, “Are we there yet?” in Mandarin, but somehow the humor is lost in translation. The main highway could be compared to a wide country lane by U.S. standards. The trail we are currently on alternates between one and a half lanes of gritty rock and dirt, to little more than a dusty earthen path beaten down by thousands of years of travelers afoot. It would be rough by four-wheeler standards, and we were, by no stretch of the imagination, in a rugged four-wheeler.

      My three lao wai comrades (laowai is Mandarin for foreigner), two interpreters, two beer company representatives and a grumpy driver were stuffed into a Jinbei Minibus. Think 1960’s vintage VW Microbus and you’ve got a pretty accurate picture in your mind. I’m pretty sure this particular vehicle might have been comfortable in it’s day, but it’s day was about twenty years ago. The age of the bus is frozen in time since the speedometer reads thirty kilometers per hour whether we’re standing still or vibrating down the highway. Faded numbers on the odometer read two hundred thousand something, but they haven’t moved in years. The shock absorbers were, well, they weren’t absorbing anything. Two years later I still have the bruises on my ass to prove it.

      Yet, there we were, three Americans in the bowels of China, trying to catch up to the keys on our laptop computers as they bounced on our laps; writing reports that would somehow have to be transmitted back to the states by the next morning. Al Gore didn’t exactly have China’s countryside in mind when he invented the internet. I hear a loud bang and a word I recognize as the Chinese version of “CRAP” and realize my interpreter dozed off just long enough to have his head thrown against the window as the bus rocked over another enormous rut. I decide to close the lid of my computer before vertigo completely overwhelms me and gaze out at the countryside.

      By now we were testing the little Jinbei’s lawnmower engine, rattling and skipping a beat that must have been a fouled sparkplug. The road turns sharply to the sky as the valley behind us falls away. The scenery is that of an alien planet. The mountains rise in terraces like a giant’s staircase. Each terrace is riddled with monster-size mouse holes. Entire mountains had been chiseled down over thousands of years by a society that had no other choice but to pick out a living from the rocks. No mountain in sight was spared. The people here lived in dirt and indescribable poverty. As the path levels out, the bus driver shouts at the locals shuffling along, burdened by bundles of coal balanced on long sticks. A few lucky ones have scraggly mules or oxen to carry their load. Old men amble alongside encouraging the beasts wielding whip-like sticks in their weathered hands. There are no villages in sight, so I can’t figure out where these people were going. This is China.

      Everything here is veiled in black dust from the mines. The air is thick with it and many of the locals wear black-stained cotton masks or wrap dirty cloths over their nose and mouths to filter out the carbon particles. The driver balances the Jinbei on a ridge between two mountains weaving in and out of the pedestrians, laying on his horn and shouting, while I close my eyes pretending not to see the thousand foot drop-offs on either side. The Chinese don’t have the equivalent of DOT or OSHA, so guardrails don’t exist. Finally, the road turns to hug the face of the next mountain and we veer close to one of the chiseled terraces riddled with human-size mouse holes. These near-perfect arches act as the structural support to keep the mountain rock from crashing inward. Odd black wisps of smoke curl from each burrow and drift upward.

      Before today, I’ve said many times, that nothing I see in China surprises me, thus our invented term, This Is China or TIC for short. Today is a first…well a first since the last time something really threw me for a loop in China. As the bus bounces by the mouse holes, I begin to make out the shapes of families huddled around small piles of burning coals for warmth in the back of each. I looked around to see my fellow lao wais are as saucer-eyed as I am. It finally hits me that there are thousands of people walking about and not a single brick and mortar structure in sight.

      The mouse holes that began as coal mine shafts had been converted to living quarters for the workers. The fortunate had scrounged pieces of corrugated metal or scrapes of wood to tilt up at the openings shielding them from the wind and rain. The wealthy families near the road had all the luxuries in life, a custom fit wooden doorway at the front, a stove pipe to carry out the noxious black soot, and electricity. The electricity is stolen directly from the main power line secured high on utility poles.

      The method is quite simple method if you’re lucky enough to forage some electrical wire and scrounge up a bicycle chain. You break the chain, tie the wire to it and throw it up until the chain wraps around the power line. After enough tugs, the chain cuts through the insulating rubber on the power line and you have free electricity for your hovel. However, if the clever thief is unlucky, the power line is high voltage and the family erects a burial wreath at the site. I’m told this is quite common throughout the countryside.

      In the upper right corner you’ll see a bicycle chain splice.

      As the bus ride continues through the mountaintop village, the scene gets more bizarre. One man is using a chisel and sledgehammer to enlarge his cave. By the decorations and signs it seems his son just got married and the family needs more space to grow. This family must be wealthy, as they have cot-like beds along the walls and a door in their cave’s wood facade. These people live on the ground floor, because on the next terraced step above them, there are more mouse holes. I count five terraces and each is riddled with holes. Leave it to the Chinese to invent high-rise caves.

      Suddenly my cell phone buzzes; startling me from my gaze. This is China. Hundreds of miles from civilization and the cell phone service is flawless. I flip open the receiver and hear my wife’s static-ridden voice. Before I can describe what I’m seeing, she goes into a diatribe on her hard day and how the garage door opener broke and how she had to use her key to go inside the house and how she broke a fingernail opening the garage door manually. At this point, all I hear is yada, yada, yada and I feel like shouting into the phone, “Sorry, I’m going into a tunnel.” Instead, being the insensitive jerk, that she later called me, I tell her that there are thousands of people living in caves here and they would die to have a door, let alone one that opens at the push of a button. I actually hear myself say, “Get over it and call a repairman.” Thank God I lost the signal shortly after that remark and we continued to bounce along the mountain trail.

      Next came the “Sign”. No, not a sign from God, but a road sign with a unique English interpretation. Okay, again, I’ll remind you that we are hundreds of miles from civilization and I’m pretty sure that even the most adventurous Westerner wouldn’t be driving this path, but there it was, in Chinese characters and English: “Easy hair of front trouble, large carry the heavy vehicle.” We all laughed until we understood what it meant. “Easy Here, Trouble Ahead, Large Vehicles Carrying Heavy Loads.” As the tiny Jinbei rounded the curve, there it was. A massive truck, taking all but a few feet of the available trail.

      The cunning truck driver immediately swerved to the face of the cliff, leaving the outside and a thousand foot drop, sans guardrail, for us to negotiate. There were a few words and gestures exchanged between the drivers as the Jinbei inched along the cliff face. A miracle moment later it was all over and we were descending into the Huang He valley. That’s the Yellow River.

      It’s now been eight hours. Those few inches on the map took six hours to negotiate. As the Jin Bei grinds to a stop, we crawl out to solid footing and take in the scenery. Odd, that we’ve come all this way to see the second largest waterfall in all of China and, stretched out alongside of us, is a mile-wide dried-up river bed with nothing that resembles a waterfall in sight, and we can see up and down the valley for miles. We all thought it, “Where’s the waterfall?” Finally someone dared to ask. “Waterfall is still a few more kilometers. We will have a break here at the Jin Pu Hotel.” There is a unified sigh of relief, both for the opportunity relieve ourselves and that we hadn’t spent eight hours of hell for nothing.

      Jin Pu Hotel

      After a short potty break; thank God for western style toilets; it was back in the bus. Chinese toilets are a whole other topic. We bounce down the road for about a mile and pull to a stop next to a cute, petite young woman with an orange coat, wielding a megaphone. But the scenery hadn’t changed and the same thought comes rushing back. “Where the hell is the waterfall?”

      The little tour guide raised her megaphone and with a loud screech, started a well-rehearsed speech. Her first interpreted words were, “Sorry, no water.” “What the f…?” A loud, confused discussion in Mandarin erupts and the corrected version is repeated, “Sorry LOW water.”

      Still, we look around. The ticking of the bus engine as it cooled signals that we have arrived, and no sign of a waterfall. But there, across the dried up riverbed is a raised concrete walkway to… well… to nowhere. The walkway ended about a hundred yards from where we stood, but sure enough, our tour guide, talking excitedly into her megaphone, started down the path to nowhere. I turned around to see that most of our Chinese hosts decided to hang back to let us discover things on our own. I have this nagging feeling that this was all a huge, cruel joke. So there we were, our Chinese tour guide, shouting into her megaphone to a lone interpreter, who then had to shout to translate what she said to the three intrepid lao wais walking on a raised concrete pathway to nowhere, inches above a mile-wide, dried-up riverbed to see what seemed to be a phantom waterfall.

      As our guide continues her well-practiced speech, as we reach the end of the concrete to be met by a dirty, yellow-tinged, jagged icepack. It’s been a very cold winter and the ice has jammed up here. Undeterred by the seemingly insurmountable obstacle, we throw caution to the wind, along with every ounce of common-sense we possess and pick our way along the silt-crusted ice without any clue as to how thick it is or whether we’ll disappear into the icy water below.

      Twenty yards further, our little guide stops abruptly, hands out as if trying to regain her balance and shouts. “Louk ie, louk ie!” It took us a moment to realize she was actually speaking English. She pointed out across the expanse of ice to a faint mist rising from the ground. At the same time, I noticed an almost imperceptible vibration in the ice and a low pitched, steady rumble sounded in my ears. Our pace quickened and the low rumble increased to a deafening roar. Still, except for the mist rising, there was no sign of the 2nd largest waterfall in China.

      We climb up and over a particularly gnarly mountain of ice and there it is. Hukou Falls. Not anything like I expected, but magnificent, none the less. Again, it’s difficult to find the words to paint a picture in your mind, but it’s as if we stepped back millions of years and were witnessing the Colorado River just beginning to carve out the Grand Canyon across the high plains of northern Arizona. Millions of gallons per minute of yellow-streaked, abrasive water from the Yellow River plummet almost four-hundred feet to the bottom of an inner-canyon no more than a hundred feet across. The awesome power of the river found a weak spot; a crack in Mother Earth; to exploit and worked at it with tireless fury. I stood on a shelf of ice, twenty-feet thick, on the edge of the raging abyss, mesmerized by the sight.

      Hukou Pubu translates to Kettle Spout Falls. The yellow, silt-laden water funnels into the canyon in dramatic fashion, throwing up a mist that transforms into a light show of shifting rainbows above. The sound is deafening and the feel is powerful as the rumble resonates through our bodies. Thank God the ice is gritty, as we are drawn in by the magnificence and find ourselves standing on the edge of the ice shelf. One slip and there would be more room in the Jinbei on the ride back.

      The next surprise clomps up from behind. A very elder man looking like pictures I’ve seen of Genghis Khan with a long thin mustache, blending with his flowing, grey beard. But this man was skinny as a rail under his shabby course clothes and carried a handmade long-stemmed pipe. A ragged mule stood behind the man wearing a colorful blanket, harness and saddle. We were witness to the famous donkey of Hukou. We knew the donkey was famous because it was embroidered in English on his blanket. For a mere 5 RMB; that’s about sixty-five cents; you could mount the donkey for a quick ride on the jagged chunks of ice and take a picture with your own camera. We found that this was one of eight donkey men that live in Zhongshi Village. They make the journey daily to the falls and earn a nice living. Several have even purchased motorcycles. This is China.

      Not many westerners make it to this remote region and we drew quite a crowd as children flocked around us to say “Hello” and ask for money. After ten minutes of handing out Chinese coins and saying “hello” over and over again, our beer company delegation comes to our rescue and we say goodbye to the incredible site. We pick our way back across the ice field and prepare for another 6 hour butt-numbing ride back to the highway. The bus stops again at the Jin Pu Hotel and out hosts inform us that they have arranged a special surprise. The Mayor of Hukou Village heard of our visit and insisted on having dinner with us.

      The dining room was clean but spartan. A round table dominated the room and centered on the table’s large lazy Susan was a beautiful centerpiece of birds and flowers freshly carved from local vegetables. Special occasions in China call for unusual food; fried scorpions, and spicy fried cicadas for appetizers, soft-shelled turtle (just like it came from the water) served over a bed of rice noodles along with various servings of vegetables and meats for a main dish and egg white ducks floating on fish soup for a finale. Copious quantities of beer slammed down in Gan Bei toasts were followed by locally made apple wine. Two hours later as the sun dipped below the mountains, we bid Zai Jian to the Mayor and pile back in the Jinbei for the treacherous ride back, this time under the veil of darkness.

      How about a nice dish of fried scorpians for the ride back. You can get it in a “To Go” box.